Authors: Keith Hartman,Eric Dunn
She answered on the second ring.
"Hello, the French Quarter Condominiums."
"Yes, hello..." I said, then stopped cold.
It suddenly occurred to me that I didn't know if Davis addressed his concierge by her first name or her last. I'd heard him talk to her a couple of times, but now I couldn't remember what he'd called her. Great, two words into the conversation, and I was already blowing my cover.
"Hello?" the concierge said again.
Come on Jen, think. You know how Davis's mind works. He sees her every day, but he probably has her classified as a servant. So he wouldn't be informal with her.
"Hello?" The concierge repeated for a third time.
"Oh, my apologies Ms. Dunsworth," I said. "My secretary had something that demanded my attention."
Hm. Well that sounded like him all right. I went on.
"This is Brian Davis in unit 219. I just wanted to let you know that my mother will be arriving today. I've given her a code for my door, but she may need a little help finding it. She's... a little easily confused. I'd rather not have her getting lost, wandering around knocking on the neighbor's doors. You understand?"
"Of course. I'll keep an eye out for her, Mister Davis."
"Thank you. She had a 1 PM flight, so she should be arriving there in the next... Oh, I'm afraid that I need to take a call. Just see that she gets in to my condo safely."
I hung up before the concierge could ask any questions. OK. So far so good. I put in a call for a cab to come pick me up in twenty minutes, and then started getting into character.
I was already wearing the basics of my "rich old lady" costume: a dark green blouse with those big flowing sleeves that are fashionable right now, and a discreet floor length skirt, both embroidered with the name of a seriously expensive designer. It was the sort of outfit that said,
OK, my thighs aren't what they used to be, so I'll display my money instead of my legs.
I'd gotten the outfit dirt cheap at a second hand shop, and it was in remarkably good condition. As long as I remembered to wear a broach over the cigarette burn in the blouse, no one would guess that it wasn't new.
I added a string of almost real pearls --you know, the ones they grow in vats using genetically engineered yeast-- and a big floppy hat that didn't really go with the outfit but would shield my face from the security cameras in the lobby. And then I went to work on the makeup.
I had decided that my character was the sort of woman who could afford plastic surgery, and had overindulged just a bit. I started by applying some adhesive tape on the sides of my face, which pulled the corners of my eyes up. That gave me the "one too many eye jobs" look. Then I slathered on a thick layer of pancake makeup over every inch of exposed skin. That gave me the appearance of a woman who had something to hide, and left it to the viewer's imagination to guess exactly what that might be. A chemical skin peel, gone tragically awry? Laser age spot removal that burned too deep? Or maybe, like a lot of women her age, she'd spent way too much time on a tanning bed back in the "brown is beautiful" nineties, and was shriveling up into a cancerous mummy now.
Anyway, with the foundation done, I moved on to the more detailed work: two tones of blush to bring out my cheek bones, eye liner, mascara, lipstick. While I slapped on the paintwork, I turned on my phone and asked Cassandra if I had any e-mail.
There was a tinkling of wind chimes, and then Cassandra's clear voice responded:
"Uh, thanks Cassandra. Read 'em to me."
I sometimes wonder about the person who scripted the dialog for my agent program. I figure it was either some Buddhist monk sitting on a mountain in Tibet, or a frustrated lit major who fought her way up from writing New Age greeting cards.
Anyway, the first message was from my partner Drew, asking if I had finished my half of the report for the Ewell case. Or more accurately, nagging me for not having finished my half of the report, since he knew darn well that if it was done I would have e-mailed it to him already. Drew has raised nagging to an art form. It's a shame he doesn't have any kids to practice it on. Still, he had a point. We weren't gonna get our final paycheck from Ewell until we turned in that report on his son and what the kid really did over spring break. I sent Drew back a message that contained the phrases "slave driver" and "on your desk by the end of the day."
The second message was from Holly, one of my coven sisters. She just wanted to thank me for babysitting last weekend, and to remind me that I had promised to do something with her oldest daughter, Summer, on Friday. I still hadn't decided what that something was gonna be. Holly had chosen me to be Summer's "Vernal Guide", which is sort of a formal Wiccan way of saying "confidant". The idea is that no matter how good a parent you are, there will always be some things that your children won't be comfortable asking you about. Mostly things involving sex. So rather than have them learn everything from other kids their age --most of whom have some pretty wacky ideas on the subject-- you arrange for them to have an older friend. Someone who knows all about sex and love and relationships, and who won't rat them out to their parents when they ask embarrassing questions.
I still had no idea why Holly had asked me to do the job. To be honest, my track record with men has been less than stellar. In fact, it seems like all the guys that I can get along with turn out to be gay. I don't know. Maybe Holly figures that I've learned from my mistakes. She could even be right about that. Anyway, now Summer and I had to get together and see if this little arrangement would work for us. I was still trying to decide where to take her on Friday. I had been thinking of a little tea shop I know that has folk-singing on the weekends, but that seemed kind of tame. I mean, the whole point of this is for Summer to have a friend who treats her like an adult and takes her places that she can't go with her mother. So now I was leaning towards a girls' night out at Cafe Diabolique.
Yeah. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. When they rebuilt the Diabolique after the bombing last year, they added a stage in the back. And now on the weekends they put on shows that ever so gingerly step around the city's adult entertainment laws. You see, in Atlanta, you can't run a strip club without a license, and the city charges something like five hundred thousand bucks for those. And you're not allowed to have a club within a half mile of a school or a church --guess the good padres don't want people popping in before services on Sunday and leaving their tithing money with someone named "Bambi". Lots of annoying rules.
However, it turns out that there's no law against putting on plays that just happen to have lots of nudity in them. First Amendment protections, "freedom of expression", something like that. It's a loophole that the Diabolique takes full advantage of. Admittedly, it took me a while to get used to the idea of Hamlet working the audience for tips during his big soliloquy, but once you make the mental adjustment it's a lot of fun. The actors are mostly students from Emory and Georgia Tech, and they seem to be having a good time. I'm sure it pays better than working in the campus cafeteria. And the job seems to have some fringe benefits. I once had Professor Henry Higgins slip me his phone number.
I had Cassandra zip out to the Diabolique's website to find out what was playing this weekend. It turned out to be
. Hm. Guys in cowboy hats and boots. Yep, this idea was sounding better all the time. Nothing better for a little female bonding than watching naked guys and bitching about men.
Oops. I was assuming that Summer was into men. Her mom had mentioned something about a boyfriend, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything at her age. And I wouldn't want her feeling out of place. Maybe I should invite some lesbian friends along, so there will be folks ogling the female actors, as well. Yeah, I could probably talk Shard and her girlfriend into joining us. That way Summer will fit in no matter what she likes. And besides, Shard will get a kick out that song,
I'm just a girl who can't say no!
I was startled out of my musings by a honk from the cab. He was five minutes early. No problem, I was almost finished with my makeup. I put on a last bit of eyeshadow, and then got out of the car and waved him over. He pulled up alongside me and got out.
"Something wrong with your car, lady?"
"Yes, I would call triple A, but I'm in a hurry. If you would be kind enough to get my bags, young man."
I popped the trunk for him, and he tried to pick up my suitcases.
"Jesus, lady. What are you carrying in these things? Gold bricks?"
"Never you mind," I said.
He managed to heave my bags into his cab, and then came around and held the door for me. I made myself comfortable, while he ran around and slid back in behind the wheel.
"OK, lady. Where to?"
I gave him the address for Davis's complex. The cabby looked at me like I was crazy.
"You dragged me all the way out here to drive you two lousy blocks?"
"No," I said, handing him a fifty dollar bill. "I dragged you out here to drive me two lousy blocks
without making any smart comments."
The cabby looked at the bill. He held it up to check the watermark. And then he looked me over in the rearview mirror. He knew something was up.
"Something wrong with your credit card, ma'am?"
He was right to be suspicious. People only use cash for transactions that they don't want recorded. It's something you use to buy drugs, or sex, or cigarettes. It is certainly not something that nice little old ladies from Buckhead carry on their persons.
The cabby watched me for a few more seconds, curiosity vying with greed. I said nothing, letting him think it over. In the end, greed won out. As it usually does. He pocketed the fifty and pulled out of the parking lot.
From the Kudzu Cafe, Davis's complex was a straight shot down Peachtree through the depths of yuppie hell, otherwise known as Buckhead. It's the section of Atlanta where people with more money than taste go to breed. During the two block drive I counted no fewer than three neo-Southern eateries, five trendy Russian restaurants, and more neon lit night clubs named after Romantic poets than I care to think about.
Two blocks down, the cab turned off Peachtree and into the the circular brick driveway of Davis's complex, "The French Quarter". Like everything else in Buckhead, "The French Quarter" is a cheap copy of something else. Well, not
Not at the prices these condos go for. But how else do you describe a place that has gas street lamps and horse ties and a caged parrot out front? Oh yeah, and the trees with the fake spanish moss. I mean, it's all kind of cute in New Orleans, where there's a whole historic district of little two story buildings like this. But it loses something when you stack them all up into a thirty story monstrosity and stick it in the middle of Atlanta.
The cabby deposited me and my bags on the curb, and then drove away quickly. Probably worried that I would ask for help with the suitcases. I was hoping the concierge would meet me out front, but she was nowhere in sight. So much for her promise to "keep an eye out".
I extended the wheels on my bags, and managed to drag them up the handicapped access ramp and in the front door of the complex. Inside, the lobby was done up to look like a New Orleans courtyard, with a brick floor and a fountain, and murals on the walls depicting quaint little shops. I left my bags at the door and wandered around for a few minutes, doing my best to look lost. Finally, the concierge noticed me and came to my rescue.
"Good afternoon," she said. She was a confident young woman, mid-twenties, in a smart black business suit. "May I help you?"
"Oh, yes please. I'm trying to find my son's home. It's number 912. No, that's not right. 219? Yes, I think it's 219. Now, would that be on the second floor or the twenty first?"
The concierge looked puzzled.
"Excuse me, but whose unit are you looking for?"
"My son's. Brian Davis. He's a lawyer with King and Spalding. Which is quite a good firm, you know. They're all very pleased with him there. I'm told he'll make partner in the next couple of..."
I stopped. The concierge had raised an eye brow. Something was setting off her warning bells.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Ma'am, I don't know who the hell you are, but I met Mr. Davis's mother when she visited last month. Among other things, she's at least a foot taller than you are. And she wouldn't be caught dead in that cheap hat. So you want to tell me what's going on here?"
I glared at her in mute indignation, trying to buy a few seconds to think my way out of this.
OK, Jen. Pressure makes diamonds. I studied the concierge, searching for any clues that would tell me her element. Each one has its special weakness. Earth souls, for example, tend to be resistant to new ideas, so you can use their inertia and rigidity to your advantage. Or you can appeal to their nurturing side, and try to melt them with tears. Air souls, on the other hand, tend to be flighty. All you have to do is wait till their attention wanders on to something else, and then slip right by. Fire is an element of domination; you either play weak, and let it think it has burned you, or play strong, and blow it out. And then there are the water souls. Water is the most fluid and changeable of the elements, and it harbors the greatest of secrets. Water souls tend to listen a lot and talk very little. With water, all you can do is plumb its depths, and that takes time. My partner, Drew, is a water soul. We've had the agency together for five years now, and I still haven't figured him out.