Had I but known…
That’s how all those old mysteries began, isn’t it? Had I but known the horror creeping through the dark passages of sinister Kensington Manor. Or was it the creeps whoring? Something like that. The gist being that if the sensible heroine (usually a girl with much more expensive lingerie than me) had only known the dangers that lay ahead, she’d never have taken that job as governess. Which is, I guess, the difference between me and those nightie-clad nannies. Even if I’d known what waited for me in the castle in the desert I’d still have taken the job. I’d have taken any job at that point.
I didn’t like her though. I did not like Shannon Hilliard at our first meeting. From her pale eyes to her tiny feet in those ridiculous pointy orange shoes. I didn’t like the way she sat smoking across from me and flicking ash into my paperclip dispenser, or the way she kept shaking her liquid gold hair over her tanned shoulders as though savoring the way it felt against her bare skin.
“You’re not what I expected,” she said, a comment which rarely wins friends and influences people. Her voice was light and indifferent.
“What were you expecting?”
She shrugged, shook the hair back again. “Kinsey Milhone. Sharon McCone.”
Great. A fan of detective fiction. At least she didn’t say Nancy Drew. With my last name it’s always a danger.
“You look more like a lawyer,” she said, adding magnanimously, “but that’s all right, in fact that’s perfect because I want you to pretend to be my lawyer.”
“And David Bellando referred you to me?”
Something malicious crossed her colorless eyes as though she were enjoying a laugh at my expense. “Right.”
Once upon a time I used to work for Bellando Investigations. In fact, up until two months ago when Vanessa Noble bequeathed me an unexpected ten grand, which I had used to set up my own operation. This hadn’t gone down especially well with David Bellando for a variety of reasons, none of them having to do with regret over losing my skills as an investigator, since he didn’t believe I possessed any.
If Dave was sending me clients it had to be because the client in question was defective.
“And what does posing as your lawyer entail?”
“A couple of days. A week at most.” She blew a stream of blue smoke across the desk.
“I mean, what do I have to do?”
“Nothing. Just agree with everything I say. Throw some legal mumbo jumbo at them if necessary.”
“You’re not actually expecting any legal advice from me?”
She laughed at the idea. “I’ve already talked to my lawyers. I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“And you’re going to pay me five thousand dollars for this? Plus expenses?”
“I’ll write you the check right now.” She pulled a checkbook out of a flat orange snakeskin bag. “Pen?”
After a hesitation I handed her my pen. Obviously there was more to this than met the eye, but five grand was five grand. I needed the money. I needed the work. My only other case involved a lost dog. And the little time I’d spent in the presence of the AWOL pup’s owner, Mrs. Louisa May-Martin, had me convinced I’d be doing the dog a kindness to let it stay missing.
She wrote the check with a little flourish and handed it over to me. Round, immature writing with little secretive loops on the ‘Os’ and ‘As’.
“I was hoping to leave for the castle tonight. We’ll need to drive out together.”
She made a face. “The Castle in the Desert. That’s what they call it. I don’t suppose it is. Everything looks giant to you when you’re a kid.”
I didn’t quite follow that, but it didn’t matter. “Okay,” I agreed, “I’ll meet you here at…what time?”
“ works for me. That way we’ll miss the worst traffic.”
“,” I said, figuring that would give me a bit of time to run some checks on the peculiar Miss Hilliard herself.
She rose and headed for the door. One hand on the knob, she paused to ask, “I assume you have a gun?”