Murder in the Marketplace [Liz Sullivan Mystery #2]
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by Lora Roberts
Description: Liz Sullivan is temping at SoftWrite and doing census interviews to supplement her freelance writing earnings. She'd met Jenifer Paston briefly that morning at SoftWrite, and in the evening she was there when the young woman's body was discovered. She's in a good position to learn insider details at the software company, but Detective Paul Drake warns her to mind her own business--and her runaway niece and homeless puppy.
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1995
eBookwise Release Date: September 2003
53 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [293 KB]
Reading time: 191-268 min.
"A refreshing and offbeat take on the female detective."--San Francisco Chronicle
I was sitting at a wrought-iron table in the sun, with half a cheese Danish on a napkin in front of me. Other tables, complete with umbrellas, occupied a wide second-story landing behind the offices of SoftWrite, Inc., in downtown Palo Alto.
It was ten A.M., break time in the office world. The sky was that soaring blue that Californians take for granted, and the June air managed to be warmed by the sun and cooled by a fresh breeze at the same time. Steps at the end of the landing went down to the ground-level alley behind the building. SoftWrite occupied the second floor of a big Spanish colonial; the first floor had several shops, including a coffee place that, judging from the burnt-toast odor, roasted its own beans.
Mindy Luccetti, across from me at the table, took a deep breath. "Smell those coffee beans. Just the aroma could keep me awake."
I preferred the scent of the lemon blossoms from the little tree growing in a tub beside us. Coffee is not my drink. I dunked a homemade tea bag up and down in my cup of lukewarm water. In a world of coffee achievers, tea drinkers can't even get the basic amenity of really hot water.
"So, Liz." Mindy set her coffee mug down after a satisfied swallow. "Do you do a lot of temp work, or is SoftWrite your first job?"
I pinched the tea bag out of my cup and took a cautious sip. "I've worked for several places, but I spend the most time at Tech Ware."
Mindy's forehead wrinkled. "I don't know a Tech Ware." She was a willowy young thing, with a mop of curly hair and oversized glasses that perched on her cute nose. I was sharing her office that morning, sitting at a spare computer to do data entry.
"It's a little place, started by Emery Montrose. His wife is a friend of mine."
"I see." Mindy pried the outside arc off the sliver of cinnamon roll she'd brought out with her. She had taken me under her wing in the two hours I'd worked at SoftWrite--introduced me to the computer, helped when I got stuck with the spreadsheet, hauled me outside for a break when the screen and keyboard seemed to be running together.
Over the past few months I'd made the transition from typewriter to computer--probably the last person in Silicon Valley to do so. I had used the typewriter to make a scanty living as a freelance writer. The computer was useful to a writer, too, but so far its main benefit was in giving me the skills to be a member of the pink-collar workforce. Much as I disliked it, temporary office work filled holes in my budget that freelancing hadn't touched.
"I've often thought temping might be kind of fun," Mindy said, breaking the layer of cinnamon roll into several tiny pieces. "Going to a new place, meeting new people. Do you work through an agency?"
"I'm signed up with one." They didn't call me often because I liked to pick and choose And just then I had another job in the afternoons. "But this job came from Emery recommending me to someone here. Most agencies don't want to be involved in part-time arrangements."
"That's right, you're just giving us mornings." Mindy nibbled one of the little pieces of roll. I picked up my cheese Danish and took a healthy bite. Okay, so I'm not willowy. I'm short and stubby, with nondescript hair. And on my budget, free Danish is something to be celebrated. After the two hours of steady keyboarding I'd put in, I felt I deserved it.
"Yeah, I've only got mornings free, and I may not be needed tomorrow. The mailing labels are almost finished."
"That was fast." Mindy blinked at me behind her glasses. "You're a real keyboarding whiz."
I had learned to be accurate the hard way, on an old manual portable. It was practically a museum piece. Compared to it, a computer keyboard was like the difference between a push lawn mower and the riding kind. "Thanks, but you deserve the credit for showing me how to jump the fields." I drank my rapidly cooling tea and tried to keep the conversation going. "I noticed from the company mailing labels that a lot of SoftWrite employees live around here. I would have thought more would come from the South Bay or from Redwood City."
"We're encouraged to bike to work or take the train, because there's not much parking downtown." Mindy started dissecting the next layer of cinnamon roll. "This is a nice area--safer, you know. And if you have roommates it's not too pricey. I live in a group house near Stanford." She looked at me. "Do you live nearby?"
"Yeah." I didn't go into it. A year ago I had lived wherever my VW bus was parked--it had been my living room, dining room, and bedroom. I woke up each morning encased in the narrow confines of my vehicle, like human toothpaste in a rusty tube.
The miraculous gift of a house near downtown Palo Alto had taken me off the streets. Now I woke in the (comparatively) vast expanse of an old brass bed, in a bedroom with plaster only slightly cracked, watching the dawn through a tall window's wavy glass. My bathroom had a big claw-foot tub, enamel only slightly chipped, and a shower with usually dependable hot water. I could hardly wait to wake up these days.
Mindy set her coffee mug down. Unlike the plain white cup I'd been given, Mindy's was personalized with a cartoony drawing of a deranged female stomping through a lilliputian town, crushing cars and waving fistfuls of small, terrified men. Underneath was the caption: ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT PMS WOMAN.
"Nice cup," I said.
Mindy regarded it morosely. "My boyfriend gave it to me. My ex-boyfriend."
There didn't seem to be any more to say. I savored another bite of the cheese pocket. Mindy dissected another ring of her cinnamon roll, working toward the center.
The back door opened and a couple of women joined us at the table. Mindy introduced me. "Clarice, Jenifer, this is Liz Sullivan, the temp who's catching us up with data entry."
Clarice nodded without really looking at me. She was a statuesque blonde, about my age of early thirties, with careful makeup and beautifully styled hair.
Jenifer smiled and offered her hand. She couldn't have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four; her reddish-brown hair rippled naturally down her back. She had warm brown eyes in the kind of face that was meant to be open and guileless, but there were smudges of purple beneath her eyes and lines of strain around her mouth, dimming the glow of her youthful skin. Even so, she made Clarice's maquillage look overdone.
Mindy examined her with concern. "You don't look too good, Jenifer. Hope you're not getting this major stomach thing that's going around."
"That's what I told her," Clarice exclaimed. "I said, Get some fresh air, Jenifer, you can't stay chained to that keyboard all day, no matter what Ed says."
Jenifer tilted her face to the sun. "It's a beautiful day," she murmured. "After a couple of years in Seattle I'll never take this weather for granted again."
"Does it really rain as much as they say?" Mindy lifted a raisin off her napkin with her finger. "I thought that was a myth."
"It's not." Jenifer lifted her hair off the back of her neck, as if it had grown too heavy. "There's a lot of interesting stuff there, of course, but nothing makes up for the weather."
"Were you working there, or going to school?" I took a bite from my Danish.
"Working," Jenifer said shortly. A vertical line appeared between her eyebrows.
Clarice rummaged in her purse. "Here, honey. Take some aspirin. Your headache's getting worse, isn't it? Maybe the sun's too bright out here."
"It's fine." Jenifer accepted the pills Clarice handed her, washing them down with a gulp of her soda, and changed the subject. "So have you heard where the company picnic's going to be this year, Mindy?"
"I don't think they've decided yet." Mindy stirred her coffee. "Maybe Ardenwood Farm, maybe someplace in Santa Cruz."
"So far away," Clarice said. Her voice was slightly nasal and had a constant undertone of complaint. "Too much driving."
The back door opened again, and a tall, casually dressed man stuck his head out. "Jenifer, Ed's looking for you."
"Thanks, Keith." Jenifer pushed her chair back and got up.
"Just like Ed." Clarice sounded seriously annoyed. "Can't he let you take a break? He should be doing some of this himself, or let Suzanne do it."
"Well, he's put me in charge," Jenifer said, but a shadow crossed her face. She hurried back into the building, her hair catching the light.
Clarice watched the door close. The bright sun on her face showed the petulant lines clearly under her makeup. "Poor girl. She's really wound up about this new software release."
Mindy toyed with the last triangle of her pastry. "It stands to reason. She's been given a lot of responsibility for someone her age, hasn't she? I heard she was doing all the stuff Suzanne normally does."
Clarice sniffed. "Well, Suzanne's such a fuddy-duddy. After all, when you're over forty in this valley, you're definitely over the hill. And she always holds on to the product much too long. You've got to get it out to the marketplace before someone else beats you to it."
"Now you sound like Ed." Mindy laughed.
Clarice wasn't laughing. "Even an asshole can make sense once in a while," she said, and stood up. "I've got to get back to work." She stalked into the building.
Mindy looked flushed. "That Clarice," she fumed when the door shut behind the other woman. "She's so touchy!"
"Ed Garfield." Mindy glanced around, making sure no one else had come out to enjoy the sun. "Our illustrious founder and head honcho. He and Suzanne started SoftWrite a few years ago, and now we're at more than fifty people."
"Ed's the big boss? Jenifer works for him?"
Mindy corrected me. "Technically, Suzanne's the veep of software, the one that thinks up the products. As a software engineer, Jenifer works for her. But this new release is something Ed dreamed up--him and Jenifer, or that's the story. She's very bright." Mindy snickered a little. "A couple of the guys say she's the new Suzanne--in more ways than one."
"Why? Is Suzanne going to retire?"
The back door opened to let out a noisy trio of young men who tossed a hacky sack around as they clattered down the stairs to the alley. Mindy pinched her lips together primly. "We'd better get back to work, too."
Picking up my cup and napkin, I followed her into the cool interior. Despite the immense skylight far above, taking up most of the ceiling space, it seemed dim inside after the dazzle of sun on the landing. To one side, along the exposed brick of the back wall, was a counter full of domestic machinery--coffeemakers labeled "Leaded" and "Unleaded," a microwave, a hot plate with a carafe of lukewarm water, and assorted canisters and jars bearing minatory warnings about unauthorized use. The big box on the counter that had held the pastries was almost empty. Some people at one of the tables that clustered in the open space were wadding up napkins and tossing them at the wastebasket, cheering loudly at any success.
Mindy pointed out a refrigerator, where I could leave my lunch if I brought it, and led the way out of the lounge area and into the maze of head-high partitions that created work cubicles for most of those fifty people.
The partitions were the pale gold of ripe wheat, stretching everywhere under the vast skylight. Here and there people had set plants on filing cabinets inside their cubicles to spill over the walls, creating oases of greenery. Occasionally a "Far Side" or "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon was pinned up outside an opening in the maze, like a graphic name card. The hum of computers and the sound of voices mingled in a low-level, brain-dulling roar.
Until I started temping a few months ago, I'd spend most of my working time alone. Meeting so many new people, being surrounded by them, wondering if one of the chic-looking women was the previous owner of the denim skirt I'd picked up at Goodwill, all gave me a massive feeling of insecurity. I almost welcomed the enclosing walls of Mindy's cubicle, shutting away excessive stimulus.
After the yeasty turmoil of the marketplace, where the buying and selling of talent and skill was upstaged by the tangle of interpersonal relationships, my solitary work, when I could afford to get back to it, would seem very peaceful.