The ring of the bedside telephone startled me and I glared at it, my mind racing. Only one person knew I was in Redding, and he didn't know I was in the hospital. And likely wouldn't care enough to call even if he had found out.
I picked up the receiver, fully expecting a wrong number.
"Miss Marielle Jones?" The caller stressed the first syllable of my given name instead of the last, and the crisp, masculine tone put me on the defensive. I wasn't exactly in a receptive mood for crisp and masculine.
"Yes. Who is this?"
"My name is Howard Fitzgerald. I own an import business here in Redding. I read the article about your accident in the Herald, and I'm prepared to make you an offer of temporary employment which would be mutually beneficial."
For a moment, I was too dumbfounded to respond, then I asked, "Why in the world would you think I needed a job?"
After a short silence, he said, "I don't know how to put this tactfully. According to the newspaper, your car was a ten-year-old Toyota. Your age is given as twenty-three and your residence as Ashland, Oregon, so I deduced you are attending Southern Oregon University. Since this is July, I further presumed you were vacationing here in California when you met with your unfortunate accident. Losing one's car can dampen one's enthusiasm for further vacationing, and I thought you might be interested in my offer."
He paused, no doubt to let me ruminate on his words. Except that I was actually a resident of Portland, and had just graduated from SOU, he had the rest right. While it annoyed me to find someone so darned perceptive, I was curious. "What kind of temporary employment are we talking about?"
"I need someone to act as a driver for my mother, niece and nephew on a camping trip from Redding to Hammond, Oregon. I would pay you well."
That last sentence grabbed my interest. But still, there was something odd about being solicited for a job via an accident report in a newspaper. Especially a driving job, when I had just wrecked my own car. "Umm...I have to stay in town until the insurance paperwork is taken care of."
"I can expedite your claim. I know all the agents."
I couldn't believe this guy. He had more brass than the pentagon. "Mr. Fitz..." I struggled to recall the rest of his name. "Mr. Fitzgerald, you don't really expect me to accept a job offer without even meeting you."
"Of course not. What time do you anticipate being discharged from the hospital?"
"About noon, I think, but..." I snapped my mouth shut, perturbed at myself for having answered him.
He went on, self-assured as ever. "One of my employees, Earl Gillespie, will be in the hospital lobby at 12:30, to bring you to my office for an interview. He's sixtyish, gray hair, stocky build. He'll have proper identification."
"I can't come to an interview. My clothes are a mess. I was in a wreck, remember?"
My protest took only seconds to register and prompt a response. "Earl will take you to your motel. I presume you are staying at one. If you'd been visiting friends or family, they would have brought you a change of clothes. I'll keep my calendar free from one-thirty to two-fifteen."
The phone clicked dead. I plopped the receiver into its cradle. Wow! Talk about sharp-witted! Entirely by inference, Fitzgerald had figured out I was just passing through Redding. As of course I had been. On my way to meet my Significant Other in Los Angeles. Ha! Until I'd phoned him last night from the motel and learned he'd found someone thinner, tanner, prettier and more willing to please. Well, he hadn't exactly put it like that. He had said "more compatible".
I made a face at the telephone. Men! Former boyfriend, prospective employer--both first class salesmen. Well, this time I wouldn't fall for the pitch. Mr. Fitzgerald would have a long wait.
Moving slowly, testing sore muscles, I got out of bed and walked the few steps to the window. It overlooked the hospital parking lot and its colorful patchwork of vehicle rooftops. In the distance, tree-covered hills rose to meet the ridges of the Pacific coastal range, hazy in the heat of the mid-July sun.
I turned away from the window. Oh, drat! Who was I kidding? Fitzgerald was right. Each school term ate up whatever money I'd earned the previous summer helping Uncle Frank on his farm. Now I needed money to buy another car; I wouldn't get much from my insurance on the old Toyota.
Fitzgerald said he'd read about my accident in the newspaper. An aide had brought one with the breakfast tray. I picked it up and paged through it. Sure enough, there I was. "Ashland Woman Survives Crash with Minor Injuries" read the caption under the photo. It had been taken last night, right after the accident, by a reporter who had happened upon the scene as I waited for an aid car.
He had zoomed in for a close-up, which I studied for a moment because I wasn't yet used to the short haircut. In black and white, I couldn't tell where my wispy, brown bangs ended and the bloodied forehead began. But the rest of the bob didn't look too bad.
I fingered the bandage over the gash as I read the brief article. Along with the information Fitzgerald had interpreted with such insight, it gave BuckthornPass as the location and near midnight as the time. It said that although my car had been totally demolished when I swerved to miss a deer, I had suffered only a mild concussion and minor abrasions.
A fit of melancholy threatened. Now cut that out, I told myself. Don't waste tears on Brandon--just chalk up that whole romance as a learning experience. Hey, it's only two years gone out of twenty-three.
I tossed the paper aside, glad that my parents would never see the article. BuckthornPass at midnight. Really dumb to take off in a fit of pique. Although I'd hardly been hurt, I'd wrecked my car. That meant I should seriously consider Fitzgerald's offer of employment. No riskier than answering an ad in the classifieds. Still...
I punched the buzzer to call the nurses' station. While I waited for a response, I paced the room, letting my body get used to the challenge of moving.
"Whatcha need, kid?" An older, thin-faced nurse stood in the doorway.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you've ever heard of a local businessman named Howard Fitzgerald? He called a few minutes ago and offered me a temporary job."
"Name sounds familiar," she said, frowning. "But I can't place him." Then she brightened. "But we've got a volunteer who knows everybody who's anybody in Redding. I'll have Lucille come up."
She whipped around and bustled away.
After a while, a short, gray-haired woman, wearing a floral-print smock and a pleasant smile, came into my room. "I'm Lucille. I understand you have some questions about the Fitzgerald family."
"Yes. Howard, specifically. Do you know him?"
She nodded. "I do. Although not so well as I knew his father, Arthur. Arthur and I met often because we both owned a business in town and went to some of the same meetings." She began to straighten the bed covers. "He owned and operated an import business for many years. He and Rafe Nelson, that is. Rafe was the buyer. He went all over the world, searching for those special items that made Fitzgerald's--the store, not the family--famous."
She was telling me more than I needed to know, but seemed so pleased to dispense information that I didn't interrupt. She plumped and smoothed pillows as she continued. "Eventually, the Nelson boy married the Fitzgerald girl, Howard's younger sister. When Rafe died a few years ago, Arthur bought out his interest in the store from Mrs. Nelson. Well, Howard's main interest has always been jewelry--he went to a design school and everything--so right away he expanded their jewelry line from just import items to antique and estate things. And he's doing very well, so I hear."
Lucille tidied the bedside table, then paused to gaze out the window. "I suppose, with Arthur gone, Howard will concentrate more on the jewelry."
I caught the tone of fresh sorrow in her voice. "Arthur Fitzgerald died recently?"
She sighed and nodded. "Yes. A couple days ago. A terrible accident." Her tone of voice hinted she didn't want to talk about that. She looked at me again and asked, "Have I been of any help, dear?"
I told her about the job offer from Howard Fitzgerald. "Mainly, I wanted to know if he's a reputable person."
"I see." She pursed her lips and wrinkled her brow. When she spoke again, she seemed to be choosing her words carefully. "Well, people say he's a shrewd businessman and hard to say 'No' to. But I've never heard about him doing anything shady."
I understood about the "hard to say 'No' to" part--Howard must have earned an A-plus in Assertiveness Training.
"Thanks, Lucille. I may not accept his job offer anyway, but I wanted to get a little background on him before I went with that man he's sending over to pick me up."
Lucille smiled. "That'd be Earl. Pretends to be a gruff old bear, but he's actually a Teddy. He's worked for the Fitzgeralds forever, it seems like."
She glanced at her wristwatch. "The nurse will be along in a minute to check your vitals one more time, and then I expect you'll be out of here." With a friendly smile and a wave of her hand, she left, leaving a little whirlpool of questions in her wake.
What sort of accident had befallen the senior Fitzgerald? Howard had mentioned his mother and a niece and nephew. Where were the kids' parents? Hadn't they come to Arthur Fitzgerald's funeral? He was--had been--their grandfather. Why was Howard's mother not able to drive herself on this trip?
As Alice in Wonderland had observed, the situation was getting curiouser and curiouser. But even if the job offer did seem like the answer to my immediate problem, I wasn't about to make any decision until I'd had that interview with Mr. Fitzgerald.
I looked down on the parking lot. A sleek black Lincoln Town Car had pulled into a visitor parking space. A stocky-built older man got out. He wore gray work clothes, the sleeves of his shirt rolled up above his wrists. Thinking he fit the brief description of "Earl" that Howard Fitzgerald had given me, I leaned forward for a better look.
Suddenly he glanced up. Even though I couldn't see his face clearly from this distance, I had the impression he was looking directly at me. I stepped back, then shook my head at my over-reaction. No way could he know what room I occupied.
After I'd signed all the necessary paperwork, which even Mr. Howard Fitzgerald apparently couldn't facilitate, Lucille came for me. "Your escort is waiting in the lobby." She paid no attention when I grimaced at having to go downstairs in a wheelchair. "We had a nice chat, even if he was more grumpy than usual."
The Lincoln driver was Earl. Whatever "usual" was, today his square face was all straight lines, from the bushy gray brows to the narrowed dark eyes to the tight-lipped mouth. Yet, I didn't feel the hostility was directed at me. It was more the "mad-at-the-whole-world" variety. Must be his way of handling grief over the death of his employer.
His only words were those to verify his identity when he showed me his driver's license, and to ask for the name of the motel where I was staying. When I got into the sedan at the hospital and out of it at the motel, he stayed at the wheel, not volunteering to open the car door for me. Well, Howard Fitzgerald hadn't called him a chauffeur.
Fitzgerald's--the store--was impressive. Red brick and leaded-glass windows outside; plush carpet, cherry wood and brass-framed mirrors inside. Howard Fitzgerald's office matched the rest of the decor.
My prospective employer was tall and trim, with well-cut dark hair. He wore a conservative dark suit and a matching no-nonsense aura. On a nearby loveseat sat an older woman, dressed in a charcoal-gray pantsuit. She had blue eyes and pale gold hair, cut almost as short as mine, but more feathery. Her right arm was in a cast from wrist to elbow, but she sat as if on a throne, chin up, back straight, fashionably clad legs crossed at the ankle. Had to be Howard's mother, even if her hair and eye color differed from his.
Mother and son looked tired and drawn, as could be expected, having so recently lost a loved one.
Motioning me to an upholstered wingback, Howard settled himself in a dark-leather chair behind a mahogany desk. Several carved wooden trays held neatly stacked papers. Pens protruded from a brass holder. A closed laptop lay at his right.
Inclining his head toward the woman, he said, "This is my mother, Gwendolyn Fitzgerald. She has had the misfortune to break her arm, which is why we need someone to drive our vehicle. It's a crew cab pickup with a canopy. Can you handle that?"
I was tempted to ask why they wanted me to drive at all, given my recent bad experience. Instead, I said, "I'm used to driving farm trucks. I've helped my uncle every summer since I learned to drive."
Fitzgerald nodded. "And have you had any experience dealing with children? My niece and nephew are ten and eight, respectively."
I told him I was an only child, but had majored in education at college and had done some student teaching. He seemed satisfied with that. As he'd said on the phone, my job would be to drive to Hammond, Oregon, where the children would be delivered into the hands of their paternal grandmother, Pauline Nelson, the wife of Arthur Fitzgerald's former partner. No mention of the kids' mother. Their father had suggested the trip, so maybe he was a single parent. No explanation of where he was or why he couldn't accompany the kids. Well, those were things I didn't need to know.
Actually, the job didn't sound too bad, although it irked me when Fitzgerald went on to describe my duties as if I'd already accepted his offer. But what the heck? This was a good deal for me. A means to get back home, not only without spending any money, but actually earning some--I liked the figure he quoted.
He ended the interview by assuring me the accident claim would be taken care of in an "expeditious manner" and telling me that Earl would pick me up at eight o'clock the next morning. I settled into the Lincoln for the return trip to my motel and shrugged off vague resentment at having capitulated. Obviously, the secret to Howard's success was that he took advantage of opportunities when they arose and made his offers too good to refuse.
Gwen Fitzgerald, on the other hand, hadn't taken part in the conversation beyond a murmured, "How do you do?" and an equally terse, "Goodbye." Well, a woman who had just lost her husband would hardly be talkative.
Besides, I'd sensed tension between her and her son. Maybe she hadn't said much because he'd badgered her into taking the camping trip. She didn't look like the type who'd enjoy that sort of thing, especially with a broken arm. She seemed perturbed. Or resentful. Something a bit removed from acquiescence, anyway.
"Mrs. Fitzgerald must still be in shock over her husband's death," I remarked to Earl as we started to pull away from the curb.
He harrumphed into his left shoulder as he checked for traffic. "Not likely. There was no love lost between them. Not for years. Not since Donna. She was a sweetheart. Too bad she died."
Who the heck was "Donna"? The implication was that she had been Arthur Fitzgerald's lover. But...none of my business, so I didn't ask. Instead I said, "Well, I admire Mrs. Fitzgerald for following her son-in-law's wishes to help the kids get over the trauma. It must not--"
"Is that what they told you?" Earl gave a snort of disgust. "Gwennie and Son don't give a damn about the kids' dad or what he wants done with them."
The man was definitely in the anger stage of dealing with his former employer's death.I should feel sorry for him, but his attitude bugged me. No need to badmouth the other family members. "Camping with a broken arm doesn't sound like Fun City to me."
"Don't sell Gwennie short. She's an athletic old bird. And I don't mean just golf and tennis, either. She sails, rides and shoots skeet."
Okay. Enough of this conversation. Lucille called him a Teddy bear, but today at least, he was more like a grizzly. Refusing to add any more grist to his petulant mill, I looked steadfastly out the window.
As Earl threaded the Lincoln through downtown traffic, I watched its reflection in the shop windows, stretching from one to the next, as if in funhouse mirrors. Behind us galloped a chunky white Ford Explorer. I wouldn't have noticed it except my roommate had one like it. This wasn't hers. No dream catcher swinging from the rear view mirror.
Earl turned onto a different street and the SUV followed. It seemed to me we were taking a more roundabout route to the motel than we had on the way to Fitzgerald's, but I wasn't familiar with Redding.
When the Explorer followed us after yet another turn, I looked at Earl. His head was tilted as if he were watching traffic in the side view mirror. Abruptly and without signaling, he drove into an alley. "Missed my turn back there," he muttered.
Within minutes, we arrived at the motel. I managed to exit the Lincoln and enter the motel with proper decorum, then yielded to curiosity and peeked from behind the lobby window draperies. Earl pulled onto the street. Before he reached the next intersection, the white Explorer cruised past. The man on the passenger side leaned out the window to look back at the motel. I caught a glimpse of a round face, dark mustache and dark hair. The man's right arm lay at rest on the sill of the rolled-down window, and sunlight flashed off the dial of his watch.
I looked out at the bright summer afternoon and thought maybe accepting the job wasn't the smartest thing I'd ever done. But then again, just because Earl might have got into some trouble, that didn't mean the Fitzgeralds were to blame. Or maybe they were, and that was why he was so hostile toward them.
Either way, it didn't affect me. Seven days, and I'd never see any of them again. I hoped the guys in the Ford knew that.