The phone rang and I jumped, scattering half a scoop of dark Italian roast across the worn beige carpet. Dammit, after a day like today, I needed coffee. This had better be good, I thought as I reached for the phone. “O’Grady Investigations.”
“Barbara, I need your help,” my best friend said.
Oh, great. “Andrea, the last time you asked for my help, I ended up chasing a killer.”
“You caught him, didn’t you?”
“That’s not the point.”
“That’s exactly the point.”
I held the phone away from my ear for a moment and looked at it in disbelief. For about three seconds. Then, with a sigh, I brought the receiver back to its normal position. “Since I doubt you’re involved in another murder…”
“But I am,” she interrupted.
“Calm down, Barbara. I don’t mean I’m involved in a murder…”
“But Kathleen is.”
I knew I’d regret asking, but I had to know. “Kathleen?”
“Kathleen Marshall. One of my temps.”
“Andrea, I know you take care of your temps. But if this Kathleen has involved herself in a murder investigation, it has nothing to do with you.”
“I feel responsible. If I hadn’t sent her on that job, none of this would have happened.”
“I sent her to fill in as a secretary at Vancouver University – in the PR department.”
That sounded innocuous enough. “So?”
“So she found it so stressful that she went to Hornby Island to recuperate.”
Before I could reply the jack-hammering started up. Again. I slammed the window shut, took a deep breath. “And this involves you how?”
“There was a murder on Hornby and now she’s worried she’s a suspect. If she hadn’t put so much of herself into the job I sent her on, she wouldn’t be.”
“Wouldn’t be what, under investigation or worried?”
“Not funny, Barb.”
“Andrea, this isn’t your problem.”
“It is. It’s a leadership thing.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s your usual over-protective response to your employees.”
“Well, she is my employee, and I’m worried about her. I want to hire you to help her.”
Here we go again. I shifted the phone to my other ear, did my best to sidestep. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No, I’m not.”
“You do not want to hire me to help this Kathleen of yours.”
“Barb, she’s frantic. She needs help.”
I stared at the rain sliding down the window. “Then tell her to get a lawyer.”
“She says she doesn’t need a lawyer.”
“Then she doesn’t need a PI, either.”
“Barb, it’s you she wants.”
Me? I didn’t remember ever meeting a Kathleen Marshall. How did she know who I was? Oh no. “Andrea, you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t tell her how I ‘saved’ you.”
“Well, you did.”
“No, I didn’t. Anyway, that’s not the point.”
“Oh, you have a point?”
“You’re not winning yourself any favors here. And yes, I have a point. I do not want to be involved in another murder case.”
Especially not one connected to Andrea. The last one had been quite traumatic enough, thank you, not to mention nearly getting me killed. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it felt knowing Andrea’s future lay in my ability to track down a killer I couldn’t find. I never wanted to feel that helpless again.
“You could at least listen to the details.”
“Are the police involved?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then it’s being handled. You don’t need me. Unless your temp actually committed the murder – she didn’t, did she?” I asked, suddenly aware of another possible pitfall.
“Kathleen is one of my best people. She’s absolutely reliable.”
“That’s nice. But did she kill somebody?”
“No, she did not! Barb, you’re not helping here.”
“Just keeping my facts straight,” I said with a grin I was glad Andrea couldn’t see. “So, she’s not guilty, the police are working on the case … Why exactly did you want my help?”
I’ve known Andrea too long to expect to get out of it that easily, but it was worth a try.
“Kathleen is a suspect, a strong suspect. You have to help her, she won’t trust anyone else.”
“I thought you said she didn’t kill anyone.”
“She didn’t! But… but she knew the guy who was murdered.”
“She knew him? How well?”
“I think they’d dated. But not recently.”
It only needed that. This case was sounding flakier by the second. I wanted no part of it, but if Andrea really was worried, I’d end up trying to fix things for her. Just like always.
First I’d have to listen to every tiny detail, then I might have a hope of convincing her there was nothing to worry about. Still, I was a little curious about the situation this Kathleen of hers had got herself into.
“This is getting complicated for a phone call.”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Kathleen and I need to meet with you. She needs some advice.”
“I still say she needs a lawyer.” Dead silence answered me. I sighed. It had been worth a try, but when Andrea gets into her mother hen mode, dissuading her is like trying to stare down a bulldozer. From a tricycle.
I looked at the client reports strewn across my desk. It was going to take me hours to finalize them, but then I’d officially be between cases. It had been a slow winter. Suddenly talking to Andrea’s temp didn’t sound like such a bad idea.
“OK, I can take a couple of hours now. Where do you want to meet?”
Brady’s is a chic little lounge with a terrific view of the harbor and the mountains. It’s one of my favorite places to go for a watch-the-sun-set drink. Even on a bleak day like today I could watch the play of light and dark in the water and sky for hours. I may not paint much anymore, but you don’t lose the painter’s eye. Still, Brady’s doesn’t leap to mind as a place to talk about murder.
On the other hand, it should be pretty empty this time of day, and the service is fast and discreet. It’s also close to Andrea’s office and not far from mine, with decent parking. Well, decent for Vancouver, which means convenient but pricey. It’s when they start charging by the half hour that you know you’re in trouble.
And if I was going to be consulted on murder, I’d need something a little stronger than coffee. “Brady’s is good,” I said.
* * *
Half an hour later, the three of us were seated at a black marble table looking out on a gray windswept stretch of water meeting an even grayer sky. The North Shore mountains were lost behind heavy clouds, and only one rusted black freighter lay at anchor, where usually seven or eight are moored. Rain lashed against the wall-to-ceiling windows, making me glad of the fire that blazed in the limestone fireplace taking up most of the far wall.
Andrea introduced us.
“Kathleen Marshall, Barbara O’Grady.”
Kathleen didn’t look like a woman capable of murdering her ex-lover. Even Andrea, soft blond curls, angel-smile and all, looked like she had more passion in her. In her early thirties, Kathleen was a tall, thin blond with a horsy face and pouty lips. Her hair hung lank around a pale face, and her eyes looked glazed. Grief? Or something else?
Andrea ordered a soda water with lime. Kathleen ordered a double Scotch. I’d expected her to order something sweet and trendy; maybe there was more to her than showed on the surface. I was tempted to join her, but I had reports to finish. Plus I was working, sort of. I ordered a glass of Merlot.
We made polite chit chat until the drinks arrived. Then I looked from Andrea to Kathleen. “OK. One of you fill me in. What’s going on?”
“Andrea sent me on a job at VU about six weeks ago,” Kathleen said. “It was a tough one, and after it finished I needed a break. So I booked into an inn on Hornby Island.”
Taking a long weekend on one of the Gulf Islands located between the BC mainland and Vancouver Island is most Vancouverites’ version of the perfect getaway, and Hornby is one of my been my favorites. It takes three ferries to get from Vancouver to Hornby, so it isn’t as touristy as Saltspring or Galliano. I love the unspoiled quality of the island, but with my schedule, I seldom find time for a long weekend away. The price of having one’s own business, I thought with a twinge of envy for Kathleen’s freedom. “You ever been there before?”
She shook her head.
“What made you choose it?”
“Anne, one of my co-workers, said it was quiet and had top-notch service. Just what the doctor ordered.”
Where do I sign? I thought. I wasn’t exactly having one of my better weeks, even before Andrea’s call. Nick was on assignment somewhere and I hadn’t heard from him for four days, my insurance was due at the end of the month, it had been raining since Monday and the last three cases I’d worked had been insurance surveillance, which are boring at the best of times and deadly in the rain. An escape to Hornby sounded wonderful. “So you arrived when?”
“Friday morning. The job ended Thursday.”
“OK. And the death happened when?”
“Sunday morning.” She paused, looked down at her hands, which were gripping the glass until her knuckles showed white. Loosening her grip, she continued, “We… we found him dead. He was late for breakfast.”
Yeah, dying will do that to you. “What time was this?”
“After eight, nearly eight-thirty.”
“And who was he?”
“He?” She seemed to be having trouble focusing.
“The dead guy.”
Kathleen’s face went white and she downed her Scotch. I’d temporarily forgotten she had a history with the dead man. Andrea patted Kathleen’s shoulder and grimaced at me.
Well, at least Kathleen’s distress seemed genuine. That was slightly reassuring, given the doubts I had about what I’d heard so far. Not reassuring enough to take her on as a client, though. “I’m sorry. Can you tell me his name?”
“Bill. Bill Rampage.”
“And where did Bill live?”
“Vancouver. He is… was a consultant.”
Ah, a business shark. “Andrea tells me you’d dated?”
She nodded, and signaled the waiter for another drink. “Yes. Yes, we did.”
“For how long?”
“Four months. But it seemed longer. Bill…” She stopped and for a moment I thought she couldn’t go on. Then she took a deep breath and finished, “Bill was a wonderful man. Warm and caring. I don’t think he ever met a soul he didn’t like. And they all loved him. I can’t believe he’s… he’s…” She stopped, put her napkin to her lips.
Andrea made soothing noises. Kathleen gave her a weak smile.
I gave her a moment, drank some of my Merlot, which was excellent. I prefer red wines anyway, but on a day like this red wine and a real fire are essential for keeping the bleak grayness out there, where it belongs.
“When was it you dated?” I asked Kathleen when she seemed to have recovered a little.
“Two, no three years ago.” She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and gulped down half of the drink the waiter had just presented her with.
Four months, three years ago, and she was still missing him. She must have really cared about the guy. I wondered why their relationship had ended, which made me think of Nick, wonder how long we’d last. I wrenched my thoughts back. “Had you known he’d be there? On the island?”
“No,” she said, but her eyes flickered.
Something wrong here. She was lying to me, and I wasn’t sure why. “You’d seen him since you split up?”
“Oh yes. Bill and I, we were friends.”
“When had you seen him last? Before Hornby, I mean?”
“I can’t remember exactly.”
“But the two of you made independent arrangements and happened to arrive at the same place.”
Uh huh. I didn’t believe her. But what did she hope to gain by lying? Then again, why did any of my clients lie? And most of them did, I’d accepted that a long time ago. Not happily, but life is better when I can pay my bills on time. Dodging the landlord is such a pain. “And was he alone?”
“Not initially. But by Sunday.”
“He arrived with someone?”
“Sure, some blonde. But she got upset, left on Saturday.”
“And what was she upset about?”
“I don’t know. Me, I think,” she said, downing the last of her scotch and signaling for another.
I took a slow sip of my wine, so I wouldn’t start yelling at her. “Let me get this straight. The dead man’s girlfriend left because of you.”
“Yes,” she agreed, sounding calmer than I felt. Probably it was the scotch. Especially if she’d been drinking before she’d arrived, as I’d begun to suspect. Nothing like a little alcohol to undermine logic and dull a healthy sense of panic.
“Are the police calling it murder?”
“And you’re a suspect?”
“I think so, anyway.”
“You think so?” How could she not know?
“Well, they haven’t said so directly, but they asked an awful lot of questions. And they didn’t seem to believe me when I said I hadn’t known Bill would be there.”
This was sounding worse for her by the minute. I kept my voice level with an effort. “Why did they think you knew Bill would be there?”
“I don’t know. But I’ve been told not to leave town,” she said, smiling at the cute blond guy who’d just brought her drink.
That didn’t mean she was a suspect. Didn’t mean she wasn’t, either. But maybe Kathleen was misinterpreting the police reaction to the case. I knew I was reaching, but the more I heard, the less I liked the sound of this case, and the less I wanted to be involved. “And when did this all happen?”
Today was Thursday. “And you haven’t heard anything else from them?”
“No,” she said absently. She seemed to be trying to flirt with the waiter.
That was good news, but Kathleen’s current behavior wasn’t. I looked at Andrea, who read my expression accurately, because she jumped in.
“Kathleen,” she said, her voice sharp. Kathleen looked at her. “Barbara needs to know what you’ve heard from the police.”
“Nothing at all.” And she smiled sloppily at Andrea and then at me before turning to look for the waiter again.
“So why did you call me?” I asked Andrea, speaking across Kathleen, who was ignoring us.
Giving Kathleen a look that was half anger and half compassion, Andrea shrugged. “I was worried about Kathleen and it seemed like a good idea?”
“Yeah, right. Look, you don’t need me on this case. She may not even be a suspect. And if it’s murder, any investigating I could do, the police can do better.”
Andrea gave me a direct look. “But what if Kathleen is a suspect, Barb? We both know innocence is no guarantee. And I know Kathleen hasn’t made a good impression, but I’ve never seen her like this before.”
She wasn’t kidding Kathleen hadn’t made a good impression. Aside from the fact that she’d been lying to us, she couldn’t hold her alcohol. It’s funny, I automatically think less of people who don’t drink well. The influence of my father, I guess, who could always hold his liquor. Just not his temper. “From what I’ve heard, Kathleen may need a good lawyer, but she doesn’t need me.”
“She thinks she does. And she won’t talk to a lawyer.”
Andrea shrugged. “That you’d have to ask her.” We both looked at Kathleen, who was now gazing raptly into the bottom of her nearly empty glass. “Of course, right now there’s no point in asking her anything.”
“She’d do better talking to Claire.”
Claire Chan is the lawyer who’d represented Andrea when she was arrested for the murder of her tenant last fall. I wished I hadn’t mentioned her when I saw Andrea’s face. Every time I mention Claire, Andrea remembers being arrested. And then she remembers that I was the one who tracked down the real killer and cleared her name.
“Kathleen won’t talk to a lawyer,” Andrea repeated. “I’ve tried to change her mind, but she’s convinced she wants you.” She paused, taking a sip of her soda. “She thinks she needs someone to find the murderer. After all, you caught Jake’s killer,” she added, as if it were an afterthought.
And look how much fun that was. “Oh no, you don’t. I only got involved then because it was you.”
“And you saved me from a life behind bars. I don’t know why you’re so upset. It wasn’t as if you actually had to confront a killer or anything. And this time it’s for one of my employees. And for my peace of mind.”
Easy for her to say. She wasn’t the one who had everyone’s expectations on her shoulders while her best friend rotted in jail.
“I have a business to run, Andrea, bills to pay.” Which meant invoices to send out, dammit. I hate paperwork. And I especially hate it when there are no new cases waiting when the paperwork is done.
“I realize that. I’ll pay for your time, at your standard rate. For the time you spend with Kathleen, and any other time you might put in. And look at it this way. If you’re right, and you find out Kathleen isn’t a suspect, your job is done.”
OK, Andrea was worried enough to put money on the line. This was sounding serious. “And if she is?”
“You said she probably wasn’t.”
“Just trying for a little clarity.” Plus I needed to know exactly what she wanted me to commit to. With Andrea, it’s never a wise idea to proceed on assumptions.
Andrea shrugged. “Think how it would reflect on my agency if it gets around that I’m hiring suspected killers.”
“So you want her name cleared. As long as you don’t share Kathleen’s delusion that I’m going to be tracking down killers.”
“Look, Barb, I won’t leave one of my employees in a jam because of a job I was paying her to do. I’d never be able to sleep at night.”
Andrea’s temporary help agency is literally the best in town, for two reasons. One is that she provides top-notch people who can actually do the job they’re hired to do, which is a lot rarer than you’d think. The second is that Andrea really cares about her people, and they know it. But even for Andrea, this was carrying loyalty too far. Not that she’d see that, of course. “Even if the employee doesn’t seem interested in helping herself?”
She glanced at Kathleen. “Even then.”
I sighed. In the twenty-three years I’ve known her, I’ve never managed to get Andrea to see the logic of a situation once she gets that tone in her voice. She thought Kathleen was in trouble, she felt responsible for the situation Kathleen was in, and she’d worry about it until it was resolved. Barbara to the rescue, as my younger sister would say. So much for my getting out of investigating this one.
Well, what would it hurt to talk to Kathleen again, find out what she was lying about? It wasn’t as if I had another case.
Wouldn’t be today, though, I thought, looking over at Kathleen, who was now face down on the table. At first I thought she was in tears, but then I heard the gentle snores. Taking out my card, I handed it to Andrea.
“Have her call me,” I said. “And you owe me one.”
She grinned at me. “I knew I could count on you, Barb.”
Uh huh. That’s what got me in trouble the last time.