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by Karen Ross


  • Go to chapter 1.

  • Go to chapter 2.

  • Go to chapter 3.

  • Go to chapter 4.

  • Go to chapter 5.

  • Go to chapter 6.

  • Go to chapter 7.

  • Go to chapter 8.

  • Go to chapter 9.

  • Go to chapter 10.

  • Go to chapter 11.       

  • Go to chapter 12.

  • Go to chapter 13.

  • Go to chapter 14.

  • Go to chapter 15.

  • Go to chapter 16.

  • Go to chapter 17.

  • Go to chapter 18.

  • Go to chapter 19.

  • Go to chapter 20.

  • Go to chapter 21.

  • Go to chapter 22

  • Go to chapter 23.

  • Go to chapter 24.

  • Go to chapter 25.

  • Go to chapter 26.

  • Go to chapter 27.


    Chapter 1



    Nobody would ever be safe again.

    Rebecca Cafferty grinned at her computer screen as she clicked her way through page after page of the most beautiful online help she’d ever written. Following her instructions, any micro-managing bozo with a few basic computer skills could monitor exactly what all his subordinates, hiding in their cubicles, were doing with their PCs.

    Nobody would ever be safe to play Solitaire or surf the web at work again.

    Alone in the dark computer lab, she raised her cup of Diet Pepsi in a silent apology to all the people who would be fired when their bosses caught them bidding on eBay auctions instead of working. But Rebecca couldn’t spare them much sympathy. She had her own career to worry about. She had practically blackmailed her way onto this project, and although the software would be released tomorrow morning, the engineers had yet to acknowledge that she had done a good job.

    According to the little clock in the corner of her screen, the midnight status meeting would start in fifteen minutes. She gulped down the rest of her soda. The sooner she got down to the conference room and gave her status report, the sooner she could go home. Three late nights in a row were more than enough for Rebecca. Tomorrow she would sleep so late, they’d be lucky if she showed up in time to leave for lunch.

    A soft rustle across the room made her peer around the dark computer lab. With the overhead florescent lights off, the small lamp next to her monitor was the only source of illumination. Her heart began beating faster. She couldn’t see anything unusual among the lumpy outlines of computer equipment spread out on the workbenches. Her imagination must be running away with her. All the engineers and testers were downstairs in the Pit. Even the cleaning staff had already come and gone. She knew she was alone on the third floor.

    A couple of engineers had come upstairs about an hour ago to bring her yet another list of picky wording changes they wanted her to make. Her irritation over their last minute demands had been completely derailed when they’d also handed her a plate of pizza and a large soda. Maybe they were finally starting to like her.

    Rebecca sighed in disgust. She couldn’t sit here all night trying to figure out if people liked her. She had to copy her new files into the main project directory and get down to the conference room before all the chairs were taken. She squinted at the glowing screen, but the filenames blurred together, impossible to read. Rebecca shook her head to clear it. She must be more tired than she’d thought.

    A break would help. When she stood up, the room tilted and she had to grab the edge of the table to keep herself upright. She giggled, surprised at how lightheaded she was. Jesus, it felt like she was drunk. She broke out in a cold sweat. She couldn’t be drunk. She hadn’t touched anything alcoholic since December fourth. She was sure of it. Tomorrow she’d have three months of sobriety.

    The room started to spin. Maybe she had caught some kind of bug. Some fresh air and a glass of water might help. But she couldn’t go downstairs to the coffee room. If anyone saw her staggering around, they’d never believe she was still sober. HR would demand another month of random UAs, and Rebecca had promised herself she’d never have to pee in a cup again.

    She picked her way carefully across the lab and out into the brightly lit hallway. She could ride down the elevator, but someone might see her when she got off. There was a roaring in her ears as she turned to look down the far end of the hall. The fire door was marked by the green glow of the exit sign. She could slip down three flights of stairs and sneak out the side door for some air.

    Rebecca closed her eyes for a second, swallowing hard against the sudden nausea that threatened to bring the pizza back up. Did the flu make you feel like this? She smoothed her hands down the front of her t-shirt, hoping she looked presentable in case anyone did catch sight of her.

    Dragging one hand along the wall for support, she stumbled down the hall to the fire door and pushed on the handle. It hardly budged. She put her weight into it. The door swung open, and she ricocheted through.

    Rebecca caught the banister and stood on the landing, bent over at the waist, trying to control the dizziness and nausea by focusing on her boots. One of her laces had come undone. She’d have to be careful not to trip.

    Dimly, she heard the door squeak open behind her.

    Whoever it was had to help her. Two warm hands wrapped around her waist. A voice said something, but she couldn’t make out the words. Rebecca let go of the banister, allowing herself to be pulled upright. She really wanted to sit down but she couldn’t make her tongue work.

    Suddenly she was standing by herself, wobbling again. She panicked. Then she felt a thump in the middle of her back, and she went airborne. After an instant of weightless freedom, the dizziness cleared and the stairs rushing up at her came into focus.


    Chapter 2


    “Good morn--”

    Martha Green smacked the disconnect button the instant she recognized the reporter’s nasally voice. He’d been calling every day since the autopsy revealed that Rebecca’s tragic fall had more to do with recreational drugs than untied shoelaces. But as long as Martha controlled the phone system and the front desk, he wasn’t getting through to anyone here.

    It was just after 8:00 a.m., too early for such bad vibes. Since none of the lights were blinking on the telephone console, she pulled off her headset and rolled her chair back from the reception desk. She needed to get centered.

    Martha tugged gently on one bare foot and then the other to pull her legs up into her lap. It was tricky, balancing a yoga position on her typist’s chair, but she’d been practicing when no one was around. She arranged her long gauze skirt to cover her legs, and she let her eyelids flutter shut.

    She visualized herself leaning out the open window of a hotel room in a tropical paradise. A salty breeze blew in from the beach, and the turquoise sea looked calm. Jerry Garcia sang softly in the background. Contentment crept over her, inch by inch, only to be abruptly dissipated by a sharp rapping on the hotel door behind her. She frowned. That had never happened before.

    Martha opened her eyes, surprised to see a woman standing in front of the reception desk, watching her with amused interest. Most people made too much psychic noise to sneak up on her like that.

    This woman looked clean scrubbed and practical, with straight dark hair falling to her shoulders and large brown eyes with just a hint of makeup. She filled the space confidently, almost like a man would. Her hands, with short unpainted nails, rested on the top of the high counter. Martha could feel tiny, cheerful “hello, maybe you can help me” particles streaming off the woman. It was an invigorating sensation.

    “You must be Susan Miles.” Martha was guessing, but she made it sound as though she were sure. There were no other names on the morning guest list.

    The woman nodded. So this was the person they were interviewing to replace Rebecca. Wow. With her air of friendly, uncomplicated competence, she couldn’t possibly be more different than Rebecca.

    “Welcome to Efficient Software Solutions, ESS for short. I’ll let them know that you’ve arrived. Please make yourself comfortable.” Martha swept her right hand delicately toward the waiting area, using the show biz technique she’d perfected during her brief stint as an auto show babe.

    As she punched in the number to alert HR that their 8:30 a.m. interview had arrived, Martha wondered why she had shown off like that. She peered over the top of her desk. Susan Miles was walking toward the bumble bee pictures, with her head tilted to one side. Cool blue sparks flew off her and glittered on the dark carpet like diamonds.

    Martha blinked hard. The sparks disappeared. Either she’d had way too much caffeine this morning or this woman was something special.

    Susan wandered across the luxuriously thick Oriental carpet to look at three black and yellow abstract paintings on the far wall of the lobby, putting some distance between herself and the meditating receptionist in the Grateful Dead t-shirt.

    Norm Fielding, her headhunter, had said that the company was full of interesting characters. He’d also said they were desperate to hire a technical writer who could wrap up some key projects quickly before the company went public. An impending IPO. The idea made Susan’s heart pound. With a few thousand stock options and a nice opening pop on the market, all her financial troubles would be over. Now all she had to do was convince ESS to hire her.

    To keep herself from getting nervous, she studied the paintings in front of her. From across the lobby, they’d looked like a jumble of black and yellow blobs of paint. Now she realized they were enlarged photographs of hundreds of bees clustered together. A white rectangle caught her eye. She leaned closer. A row of black vertical lines filled the center of the rectangle. Susan’s eyes crossed, then refocused. It was a tiny bar code. She looked at the other bees. They all had little tags on their backs.

    “We can slap a bar code on anything these days.”

    Susan turned. The woman at her elbow beamed proudly at the picture. She looked about forty with dark, gray-streaked hair cut in a short bob.

    “I’m Gloria Smith, Director of Human Resources.” The woman’s handshake was vigorous and quick.

    “Glad to meet you. These pictures, well, I’m amazed.”

    She must have shown the right amount of enthusiasm, because Gloria’s smile was warm. “We developed the system for a research team at the University of Washington. They track honey bee flight patterns for an experimental farm in the Yakima Valley.”

    Susan nodded thoughtfully.

    “Well, let’s get started. You’ll be talking to me first, and after that you’ll meet some of our technical people.” Gloria pointed toward a hallway that ran behind the receptionist’s desk. “The conference room is this way.”

    As they headed off, Susan made a calculated effort to break the ice. “My resume may not reflect it, but I just love working with bees,” she said with a sly smile.

    Gloria stared at her as if unsure how to take such an outrageous statement.

    “Spiders, too,” Susan added with a wink.

    The Director of Human Resources laughed so hard that she snorted and then clapped a hand over her mouth in embarrassment. Susan adjusted her grip on her briefcase. She knew in her heart that the job was already hers.


    Chapter 3


    The interview reminded Susan of tag team boxing. Every sixty minutes, a fresh interviewer came into the tiny windowless conference room, and the tired one left. After Gloria, Susan talked to the manager of the writing department, a senior engineer, and finally a technical writer about as fun as a lap full of hot coffee. Susan’s face ached from smiling when she left, but within two hours she had mailed each one a thank you note. The next day, all of her professional references called to say they had been contacted and had, of course, said wonderful things about her. So it was no surprise when ESS set up another appointment a couple days later.

    Gloria escorted her back to the tiny conference room, looking quite pleased and carrying a thin manila folder, which just had to contain an offer letter. The only question was, how much were they offering? To savor the anticipation, Susan decided to squeeze in one last question.

    “What happened to the person who held this position last?”

    Gloria’s complacent little smile disappeared. She shifted in her seat and avoided eye contact like a third grader in the principal’s office.

    What was the problem? It didn’t matter if the previous writer had been promoted, fired, or if she had moved to Montana to get married and make babies. Nothing would change Susan’s decision to take this job.

    “Yes, well, the previous technical writer,” Gloria cleared her throat, “died rather suddenly.”

    “Oh my God.” The response was out before Susan could edit it.

    “There was an accident.”

    Susan stared at Gloria, wondering if the accident had been work related. Technical writing was not, as a rule, very dangerous. You might get carpal tunnel syndrome, or you could go crazy waiting for engineers to review your manual, but there was little chance of getting killed. Or so Susan had thought. She opened her mouth to ask about the accident, but Gloria cut her off.

    “I haven’t described our compensation structure yet.” The woman’s voice dropped to a purr. “We issue paychecks on a monthly basis. We understand how difficult it can be when starting a new job, so we immediately offer a full month’s salary on the first day of employment as a signing bonus.”

    Susan bobbed her head in what she hoped was a sage, restrained manner. But inside, her heart was pounding. Her current employer hadn’t been able to make full payroll for three weeks, and she could really use a big check to get back on track.

    Gloria said something about stock options and the 401(k) plan, but Susan concentrated on keeping her breathing slow and even.

    “We don’t usually do this, Susan, but ESS would like to extend you an offer now.” Gloria pushed a paper across the table.

    Susan scanned the letter. The salary was five thousand dollars more than she was currently making, and the stock options were promising. The letter requested that she start work next Monday, which was no problem since almost everyone else had already left Web-Tech. She would receive her first paycheck on that day, just as Gloria had said. She had never gotten a signing bonus before.

    “This is a generous offer.” Susan made herself sit still, because what she really wanted was to jump up and kiss the woman.

    “We hire only the best, and we want our people to feel valued.”

    “I’d like to have a little time to think about it.”

    Gloria’s lips tightened into the merest hint of a frown. “Fine. Is there anything else I can tell you?”

    “I don’t think so. I have a pretty clear picture of both the position and the company.”

    Gloria slid her chair back, signaling that the interview was at an end.

    Susan felt the woman’s displeasure and hurried to ease it. “I’m very pleased to receive your offer. This is an exciting opportunity and an excellent company. As a rule, though, I like to think things through.” She slipped the offer letter into the side pocket of her briefcase.

    Gloria led her from the room and down the short hallway to the front lobby. As the two women shook hands, Susan murmured more sentences memorized from interview books and then slipped through the doors.

    Her conservative, white sedan was across the parking lot. Susan unlocked the door, tossed her briefcase onto the passenger seat, and turned back toward the building. Efficient Software Solutions was housed in a very pretty brick building, compared to what she usually saw in the Redmond area. ESS took up three floors at one end of the building, and smaller companies shared the rest of the office space.

    Susan got into her car and drove carefully to the street. Once she was safely away, she screamed in delight. She got the job, and just in time to make rent. At a traffic light, she pulled her cell phone from the glove compartment and punched in the number of her headhunter.

    “What did I tell you?” Norm’s voice boomed, and Susan jerked the phone away from her ear to avoid permanent hearing loss.

    “Cash rich, decisive, and a great place to work. This is one hot company. They’re lucky to get you, though. I’m not surprised they made you an offer. I told Smith you were thinking about flying down to Silicon Valley for lunch with an Internet startup and that she’d better act fast before you bought a ticket.”

    “You’re such a liar. I love it. But you never mentioned that the previous writer died, Norm. What gives with that?” The light turned green and Susan eased into the intersection. She was already halfway home. Her commute would be fantastic.

    “I’m surprised they said anything about it. The woman was working late, and she fell down some stairs and broke her neck.”

    “Oh my God.” It was spooky enough that she had died, but for it to have happened at work made it worse.

    “Smith told me the facilities manager had the stairs inspected. No improvements were required but they put in brighter lights.”

    “It is a lovely building.” Susan knew she was talking herself into the job.

    “Am I going to get my commission on this one? Do you want the job?”

    “Of course!”

    Stretched out on the couch with her notebook computer on her lap, Susan finished typing her letter of resignation. She smiled as she proofread the short, polite paragraph. The best part was what she had left out: namely, that she must have been crazy to take a job at an unstable little startup like Web-Tech. Well, she could admit it to herself. Six and a half months ago, she had been crazy. Jack had just pulled his stunt, and she had walked away from a great job at Wolff to escape him. Desperate to find a new job where nobody knew her or Jack, Susan would’ve joined a traveling circus if she had found one that needed a technical writer.

    This time, though, she’d made a smart choice. ESS had mature software products, a loyal customer base, and a whole bunch of money. Both her resume and her bank account would benefit from the move. There was no way she’d be back on the street looking for another job in six months.

    Her roommate Roger came into the living room. He carefully draped his suit jacket over the back of an armchair and set down his briefcase.

    “Christopher tells me you received an offer today. Bravo!” He sounded as though he were congratulating himself, as if his lectures on interview deportment had gotten her the offer.

    Susan just smiled and nodded. There was no use arguing with him. Because he wore suits and made more money than she or Chris did, Roger considered himself the savvy one and felt honor bound to share his wealth of information. It could be annoying, but in general he was a pretty good roommate. All the good furniture and electronics in the house belonged to him, and he didn’t mind sharing.

    He loosened his yellow power tie and unbuttoned his top shirt button. “I know a guy who works at ESS. Dave Bennett. It might be prudent to talk to him before you commit yourself. I seem to remember--”

    Something in Susan’s expression must have caught his attention, because he abruptly crossed his arms. “Tell me you didn’t already accept the offer.”

    She shrugged. Even an impending lecture from Roger couldn’t ruin her good mood. “My headhunter accepted it for me about an hour later.”

    “My God, the negotiating power you gave away! That’s like saying yes on the first date.”

    From the doorway, Chris snickered. “Has any woman ever said yes to you on a first date, Roger?”

    Roger glared at him, but quickly returned his gaze to Susan. He wouldn’t give up until she explained herself.

    “When I got to my office at Web-Tech this morning, the furniture rental people were taking everything away. They took my desk and my chair, Roger.”

    She’d managed to shake him with that news. He gripped the back of the armchair and gaped at her. Chris, who had survived the demise of several startups, made choking noises trying to contain his laughter.

    “So when ESS made me an offer, I jumped on it. I didn’t need to go sit on the floor at Web-Tech to think it over.” She played her trump card. “And I’m getting a month’s salary as a signing bonus.”

    Roger scowled. “Last night, you weren’t sure you wanted this job because you’ll be writing about boring industrial bar code software instead of the web stuff you’ve been doing lately. All of a sudden that doesn’t matter?”

    Susan didn’t bat an eye. “When those guys took away my chair, it put things into perspective for me.” She shrugged. “Bar code could be interesting. Plus, they promised me that I’d eventually get to work on their flagship product, Activity Tracker. As soon as the revenue stream from AT is stable, they’re going to phase out the bar code projects.”

    Chapter 4


    Susan arrived for her first day of work at ESS ready to charm her way into everyone’s heart and wow them with her expertise.

    The receptionist, practically drowning in a huge white t-shirt with a pink peace sign, beamed at Susan as she entered the lobby. “Welcome aboard! Your escort is on the way down.”

    Susan thanked her, wondering how she’d managed to call for her escort so quickly. Maybe they had video surveillance of the parking lot. Martha just sat there grinning at her, glancing at the top of her head. Susan hoped there was nothing wrong with her hair.

    The elevator pinged. Out bounced a petite, pony-tailed blonde who headed straight toward Susan. She was wearing jeans and a University of Washington sweatshirt. This was the technical writer who’d been so unfriendly during the interview. What was her name? Something that rhymed with catty--

    Susan stuck out her hand. “Hi, Patty. Are you the welcome wagon?”

    Patty shook her hand too vigorously, the way short people sometimes did. “I’m your official buddy. I’m supposed to show you around, answer your questions, and make sure you have what you need.”

    “Great.” Susan’s response came out a little flat. She’d never been assigned a keeper before. Did the company think she couldn’t get along on her own?

    Obviously she hadn’t completely hidden her reaction, because Patty looked abashed. “I do want to apologize about how I acted in your interview. I knew they were making you an offer, and I couldn’t resist teasing you. I hope you won’t hold it against me.” She smiled hopefully up at Susan and pressed one hand theatrically to her heart.

    “Don’t worry about it,” Susan reassured her. There was a coldness in Patty that Susan didn’t trust, but there was no reason to let her know that.

    A tinkling sound floated across the lobby. Martha was pouring a bag of candy into a green glass dish on her desk.

    “Let me show you your office.” Patty motioned her to follow. As they passed by the receptionist’s desk. Patty scooped a handful of colorful hard candies from the dish. Martha was speaking into her headset, so Susan silently mouthed the word “thanks” as she selected a yellow ball for herself.

    Patty led Susan down the same hallway toward the conference room where Susan had been interviewed. As they passed it, she felt a warm glow of victory.

    Gray carpeting muffled their steps, and all Susan heard was crinkling plastic as she and Patty unwrapped their candy. She popped hers into her mouth and winced as the lemon tartness hit her jaw.

    Razor sharp creases ran down the legs of Patty’s jeans, and her pristine white sneakers had to be brand new. The purple and gold ponytail scrunchie matched her UW sweatshirt, making her look like a retired cheerleader. Usually, technical people looked like slobs, even the millionaires. Susan had decided to wear jeans and a navy blue polo shirt from the Computer Museum in Boston. The museum was geek heaven, and the shirt was always a conversation piece.

    “Here’s your office.” The smell of strawberries accompanied the words. Patty reached in an open doorway and flipped on the light.

    Susan peered into the deep, narrow room. It was about the size of a closet. A florescent light flickered from the ceiling. Most of the floor space was taken up by a metal desk shoved against the wall and a low filing cabinet. It’s a good thing she wasn’t claustrophobic.

    “You’re kidding me, right?”

    Patty shook her head. “We’re sorry you can’t sit upstairs with the rest of us, but we’re really tight for space. There isn’t a free cube anywhere in our area.”

    It would be harder to get to know her new colleagues being so far away from them, but Susan didn’t want to look like a poor sport.

    “That’s okay. I’ll be fine down here.”

    Patty pushed her sweatshirt sleeves above her elbows. “Space is a real problem around here. There were rumors we were moving into fancy new digs in Pioneer Square, but nothing ever came of it.”

    Susan made a little noise that she hoped sounded sympathetic, but she wouldn’t drive into Seattle every day, no matter what they paid her. The 520 floating bridge was a nightmare at rush hour.

    “Look at it this way. You get a real office instead of a cube. I’d kill for a ceiling, let me tell you. And you’re right next door to Philip Corbin. He’s the head of engineering. He can be,” Patty glanced toward his office as if she’d find the perfect word written on his door, “interesting. He’s a perfectionist. He’s controlling. He plays favorites. But he’s the genius behind our success.”

    Susan hadn’t met Philip during the interview process, but from the number of questions that were a variation of “How well do you work with difficult people?” she’d figured out that someone in the company was a jerk. She’d also guessed that the difficult person had to be pretty senior, otherwise ESS wouldn’t go through all the trouble finding people to work with him or her.

    “Why don’t we go inside?” Patty held out a hand to motion Susan to enter first.

    “Can we both fit?” She stepped into the closet, scooted behind the swivel chair and stood next to the filing cabinet to give Patty room to get in.

    The computer looked relatively new, and the monitor was at least 19 inches across. Susan couldn’t wait to turn on the machine and see how fast it was.

    “You have two bar code projects, code named Carnival and Salmon, and they’re both in crunch mode.” Patty pointed to two piles of papers on the desk. “Mark Eastman went through the previous writer’s stuff and collected everything you should need. If you have questions, he might be able to help.”

    Mark was the de facto manager of the Technical Publications department, even though his title was Lead Writer. During her interview, once he’d looked over her portfolio and decided she could write, Mark had seemed most interested in how well she got along with people and dealt with chaos.

    Susan nodded briskly. “No problem.”

    “Try not to feel bad about having to work on the bar code projects. They’re not very exciting, but they generate a lot of money. They’ve kept the company going while we perfected Activity Tracker.”

    Susan was impressed that Patty could be so rude in such a friendly tone of voice. “Try not to feel bad? Gee, Patty, you’re going to make me think I accepted the wrong offer.”

    Patty looked contrite. “I didn’t mean to sound like that. I guess I’m just so glad I’m not working on any more bar code projects. Mark gave me the Activity Tracker project. I don’t know why they let Rebecca work on it in the first place. She just didn’t have the experience. If you find any notes or files about Big Brother, which is our internal name for AT version 6.0, please get them to me ASAP.”

    Susan nodded, amused. Big Brother was a pretty funny nickname for software that let management spy on people by tracking everything they did on their computers. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with the ethics behind spying, but at least she wouldn’t be writing instructions for a weapons system.

    Patty looked at her watch. “I have a meeting to go to.”

    “Don’t worry about me. I can entertain myself.”

    “Why don’t you start looking over your projects? I’ll be back in an hour or two. Then I’ll drag you around the building and introduce you to everyone. We’re supposed to go out to lunch with Tom Brent, your lead engineer. Sometime today you’ll have to go to HR to see Gloria. She’ll get you all set up with paperwork and benefits.”

    Susan nodded. She’d met Tom during her first round of interviews, and he seemed like a good guy to work for.

    Patty seemed ready to go out the door, but she hesitated as if she had something else to say. Susan knew she’d regret it, but she raised her eyebrows to prompt her. It worked.

    “They must have told you that the previous writer, Rebecca Cafferty, died.”

    Susan nodded again, wondering where this was leading.

    “This was her office. Mark and Gloria cleaned it out and boxed up her stuff. If you find anything personal in here, just give it to me. I’ll make sure it gets sent to her parents.”

    Susan felt a prick of annoyance. What did Patty think she’d do, keep whatever she found? It wouldn’t help the situation to find fault with everything Patty said or did. They were official buddies--the idea made Susan shudder--so she had to make the best of it.

    Patty rested her hands on the back of the swivel chair. She was looking around the office with obvious distaste.

    “They probably didn’t tell you that she was wasted on drugs the night she fell down the stairs and broke her neck? That’s not the kind of thing they like to talk about.”

    Susan just stared at her, shocked.

    Patty tightened her grip on the back of the chair, and Susan got a creepy impression that she was strangling it.

    “No one wants to speak ill of the dead,” Patty muttered.

    Susan didn’t say anything.

    Patty seemed to realize how bizarrely she was acting, because she shook her head and let go of the chair. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. The grief counselor the company hired said to take it easy. I guess I’m stuck in the anger phase of the whole mourning thing. Rebecca’s death was such a waste.”

    She pressed a trembling hand to her face and hurried out.

    Susan let herself sink down to sit on the low metal filing cabinet. She eyed the chair and then looked out the door into the empty hall. Patty was a wacko. Susan shook her head. The only question was, had she always been crazy or had working here made her that way?

    Cold from the metal filing cabinet seeped through her jeans. Susan shivered. This office must have originally been a storage closet. She stretched out her arms to see if she could touch both walls, but she came up short a few inches.

    Well, such a small room would be easy to decorate. A cardboard box of all her office stuff, posters and knickknacks, had been in the trunk of her car since she’d cleaned out her office at Web-Tech last week. If this was going to be her new home, she would make it homey. Her gaze skidded to a stop on the keyboard. It was disgusting. Every key was smudged brown, with crumbs and other filth jamming all the crevices.

    Susan felt the tension building in her shoulders. This was exactly how she’d felt last week when she sat in her office at Web-Tech and watched the men from the furniture rental company repossess her desk and filing cabinet. She had still been sitting there, strangely immobilized, when they had come back for her chair. The tall one had shot her a look of pity as he shooed her away like a cat. In that moment, she’d finally admitted to herself that she should have quit months ago, the first time her paycheck had bounced.

    Susan reached out with one foot to spin the chair in front of her. She didn’t want to sit down here waiting for Patty to come back. It would have been so much better if they had been able to squeeze her into a cubicle upstairs with everyone else.

    The office door had been propped open with a rectangular metal trash can. Not one person had walked down the hallway in the last ten minutes. It was totally quiet, too. No one was talking or typing, and not a single phone had rung. This office really was in a galaxy far, far away from everyone else in the company.

    There was really no reason for her to sit here and pout, Susan decided abruptly. She had a great new job waiting for her with all new people and technology and software to play with. The obvious place to start was the help desk, or whatever they called the department where she’d get a login account. Then she could send out email to all her friends and let them know where she was.

    Susan strolled back down the hall toward the lobby. Martha ought to be able to point her in the right direction. She’d seemed friendly enough, although she had stared at the top of Susan’s head with a strange expression. Maybe she should make a quick stop in the ladies room to make sure her hair was okay.

    ESS had to be doing well financially. The bathroom had paper towels and liquid soap, and the laser printer in the hall outside her office had stacks of paper and an extra toner cartridge right there beside it. At Web-Tech, Susan had to bring in bathroom supplies, and it had been like pulling teeth to get a new cartridge for the printer. She grinned. She’d reached the promised land.

    As she approached the lobby, she could hear Martha on the phone. But Martha waved her over to the receptionist’s desk while she spoke into the headset. She held up a sheet of paper.

    Surprised, Susan took it. It was a hand-drawn map of the building, with Human Resources (HR), Information Technology (IT), the coffee room, and Patty’s office all labeled. Goosebumps rose on her arms. How had Martha anticipated her request?

    The receptionist smiled sweetly at Susan as she asked the caller something, and Susan shook herself. Of course the new person would need a map. No mystery there.

    She whispered, “Thank you.”

    Martha gave her a thumbs up, pushed a button, and repeated her mantra. “Thank you for calling ESS. How may I direct your call?”

    The map showed the HR department on the first floor, at the opposite end of the same hallway Susan’s office was on. It made sense to go there first, since everything else was up on the second floor. So Susan cut across the lobby toward HR. She found a reception area with a sofa, a coffee table and a bookcase full of forms.

    A secretary sat at a desk with the nameplate Barbara on it. Susan introduced herself to the extremely pregnant young woman, who had her swollen ankles propped up on a box of photocopier paper.

    “This is my first day. I’m supposed to check in with Gloria Smith.”

    “You might want to have a seat? Because Gloria has someone in with her?” Barbara had that funny way of talking where everything sounded like a question. Susan sat on the sofa and looked around the room.

    A poster on the wall across from her showed a flock of geese flying in formation against a cloudless blue sky. Susan squinted at the slogan. Something about teamwork. The inspirational message was lost on her, though, because the picture reminded her how grossed out she’d been the last time she tried to walk around Greenlake, what with all the goose poop on the walking trail.

    The secretary trudged over to Susan and handed her a clipboard and a pen. “If you fill out your W4 form now, I can make sure you get your bonus by the end of the day, okay?”

    Susan took the clipboard. “You didn’t have to bring this to me. You should have called me over to your desk.”

    That earned her a tired smile. “That’s okay. My doctor told me to, like, keep moving, you know?”

    Barbara absently patted her huge tummy as if comforting the little person inside. She wore a long cotton knit sweater and leggings in a very flattering soft green.

    “When are you due?” Susan hoped this wasn’t too personal.

    “Six more weeks?”

    “No way!” Susan didn’t have a lot of experience with pregnant women, but this one looked overdue.

    “I know. I look ready to pop.” She sighed. “When you finish, please bring me the form.”

    Susan watched her waddle back to her desk and then looked down at the W4 and grinned. Gloria had said in the interview that she’d get a month’s salary on her first day. This was like hitting the jackpot.

    Two women walked by carrying coffee mugs and chatting. They looked at Susan with interest, checked with Barbara for messages, and then went into the second office.

    After a couple of minutes, a murmur of voices escaped from the first office. The door swung open and hit the wall with a bang, followed by an angry male shout, “How many times do I have to tell you, I’m not staying here another minute! I have a ton of vacation time saved up. Use that for your damned two-week notice!”

    A red-haired man stalked out toward the lobby. His jaw was set, and freckles stood out sharply on his pale face.

    Gloria stepped into the doorway, gripping a single sheet of paper and staring after him with a worried frown that contrasted with her cheerful flowered dress. She crossed her arms, unconsciously crushing the paper.

    When Gloria finally noticed Susan, she smiled stiffly. “It’s nice to see you again, Susan. I’m going to be tied up all morning. Barbara will make you an appointment for this afternoon.” Without waiting for a response, she retreated into her office.

    Trouble in paradise. The man had looked like an unhappy engineer. Susan wondered what the problem was. Software companies have to keep their engineers happy. After all, they create the product. A company can’t survive without a product.

    She tapped the clipboard absently against her leg, wondering what had made this guy so upset he had to leave today. Even after she’d quit her job at Wolff under that dark cloud of embarrassment, she’d given them the traditional two weeks’ notice.

    “Let’s make you that appointment?”

    Susan nodded and walked over to Barbara’s desk. She handed her the clipboard with the completed tax form. “I’m probably free all afternoon.”

    Barbara squinted at her computer screen. “How about three o’clock?”

    “Fine.” If Patty had something terrible planned for her this afternoon, Susan would use this appointment to rescue herself.

    Barbara stared off into space for a few seconds, her eyes not seeming to focus on anything. Susan felt a buzz of alarm. Was she going into labor or about to faint?

    “You seem much nicer than the woman you replaced,” she said quietly. She appeared to gather herself up and her eyes snapped to meet Susan’s. “My goodness! I’m sorry, that was pretty inappropriate of me, wasn’t it? Must be the hormones.”

    “What was she like?”

    Barbara frowned. “Oh, Rebecca Cafferty spent a lot of time out here waiting to talk to Gloria. Either she was complaining about someone, or someone had complained about her.”

    Susan pushed open the double swinging doors to the IT department and was hit with the familiar but completely unexpected ammonia smell of a litter box overdue for a cleaning. There was also an unpleasant, chemical overtone of flowers as if someone had been too aggressive with the air freshener. Susan clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, making a noise that usually made cats come running. Nothing happened.

    A row of tall gray metal bookcases full of user manuals formed the back wall of the reception area. The IT people probably all had their desks behind the bookcases. Maybe that’s where the cat and litter box were.

    A battered gray metal office desk sat in the middle of the room. A PC sat at one end of the desk, with all its wires bundled together in an ugly umbilical cord that disappeared into the ceiling. An old-fashioned brass teacher’s bell held down on a sheet of paper that said, “Ring bell ONCE for help.”

    Susan rang the bell once.

    A man’s voice called out, “Just a second,” from behind the bookcases.

    The walls were covered with a riot of colorful posters for computer products. A grainy black and white picture caught Susan’s eye. It looked like Patrick Stewart dressed up as Captain Jean Luc Picard when he’d been captured by the Borg. A red beam of light from one of the robotic attachments implanted in Picard’s head cut across the poster. The poster advertised a version of the OS/2 operating system that had been nicknamed Borg. As far as Susan knew, ESS didn’t use OS/2, so someone here must be a Star Trek fan. The thought made Susan feel more at home.

    A teenaged skateboarder dude in long baggy shorts and an orange t-shirt walked out from behind the bookcases. “What can I do for you?”

    He was short and wiry, and his blond hair stood straight up from his scalp, but he wasn’t really a kid. He had to be at least twenty-five. Susan mirrored his friendly smile and introduced herself as the Tech Pubs new hire.

    He shook her hand warmly. “I’m Andy Gardiner, IT slave. Welcome to ESS. I guess you’re here to get a network login.”

    She nodded and decided to try a little Star Trek jargon on him. “Sorry it’s not something more exciting, like a warp core breach.”

    He grinned. “So you’re one of us, eh? Now I’m really glad to meet you.” Andy sat at the desk and started clicking with the mouse. “Okay, let’s get you set up. All I need is a user name. Usually people here do first initial, last name.” He thought for a minute and grinned again. “That would make you Smiles.”

    She shook her head. “Too goofy. How about my initials? SAM.”

    “Okay, Sam, you got it.” He typed slowly, looking down at the keys. “I’m giving you Sam as your password, too, so the first thing you should do when you log in is change it to something else.”

    Susan nodded.

    “You’re all set. Your email address is Sam at ESS dot com. You can use this login at your PC and upstairs in the software lab. If you have any trouble getting to the files you need, come back and see me.”


    He rummaged through a drawer and handed her a sheet of paper. “You have to read and sign some paperwork, mostly promising not to surf the web and download pornography here at work.”

    “Is there a lot of trouble here with that kind of thing?”

    He grinned again. “Preventative measures only.”

    “Is there any chance I could get a new keyboard?”

    “Yours doesn’t work? I checked that machine out completely--”

    “I’m sure it works,” she interrupted, wrinkling her nose, “but it’s really filthy.”

    He laughed. “Rebecca usually ate lunch at her desk. She was kind of a slob about the crumbs. Sure, I can give you a new keyboard. Hang on.”

    He rolled away in his chair to the closest filing cabinet and unlocked the bottom drawer. Susan watched him pull out a cardboard box containing a brand new keyboard. This was great. Now she wouldn’t have to spend any time trying to clean off those disgusting keys.

    Voices that had been a low background murmur now rose over the bookcases. She heard, “We’re doing the best--” and another voice saying, “It’s unacceptable--”

    Susan raised her eyebrows as Andy rolled back to her with the new keyboard.

    He shrugged as he handed her the box. “My boss Dave has an office back there. Phil Corbin, he’s the VP of Engineering? He’s complaining about the litter box.”

    “It does smell funky in here.” She was reluctant to side with management, but there was no denying the stench.

    “I clean it every morning.” Andy slumped in his chair, frustration written on his face. He pointed to a spot behind her, and Susan turned. The litter box was against the wall beside the doors. A large bag of old-fashioned clay kitty litter stood next to it. No wonder they were having trouble with the smell.

    “If I have to spray any more of this Country Meadow crap,” he held up a can of room deodorizer, “I’m going to puke.”

    Susan grinned. “I know what you mean. There is a nauseating blend of flowers and cat pee in here.” She looked at the papers he’d given her. “Well, I guess I’d better go read these and sign them.”

    As Susan walked back to her office, she thought about the stench in the IT department. That stinky old-fashioned litter box might be her ticket to making some allies in the company. Even if they didn’t pay her today, she certainly had enough money left in her checking account to stop by the pet supply store on her way home tonight and buy herself some new friends.

    Back in her office, Susan saw a piece of paper in the in-basket on the corner of her desk. She grabbed it, ridiculously pleased. Settling in would be easier once she started getting memos to complain about at the proverbial water cooler.

    But this wasn’t a memo. It was a resume for someone named Taylor Ackerly who apparently wanted a job in the mailroom. Taylor had worked at Kinko’s part time for a couple of years. Susan smiled. He or she--there was no telling these days what sex a person was from their name--had also won an award as a high school senior for perfect attendance. There was no mention of grade point average, though.

    She dropped the resume back into her in-basket, not sure what she was supposed to do with it. Maybe someone in the mailroom had made a mistake. In that case, they ought to hire Taylor, who claimed to be “detail oriented, responsible, and looking for an opportunity to contribute to the company’s overall success.”

    Susan logged on to the network, changed her password, and sent email to all her friends to let them know she’d escaped from Web-Tech. Then she logged off so she wouldn’t be tempted to sit around all morning and answer the replies she would inevitably get. It was time to get to work.

    She looked at the two stacks of paper on her desk and automatically pulled the larger stack toward her. May as well get the worst job over with… The memo on top of the stack identified the project by its code name, Carnival.

    After a few minutes, it became clear that Carnival was a cruelly misleading name for an extremely boring project. She had to finish updating a user manual that explained how to install and use a program called Price Tag Designer 3.0, which let you create and print price tags with bar codes on them. The only interesting part of the manual was Appendix A, a ten-page tutorial that showed how to make price tags.

    Susan found six photocopies of the manual that had been sent out to the engineers for review. Each copy had a neon orange cover and black plastic comb binding, sort of like a cheap spiral notebook. She flipped through the reviews, which were full of cryptic and sometimes rude corrections.

    In one spot, someone had drawn a big X across an entire page and scribbled “WRONG!” in the margin. A comment like that was completely useless. She looked at the cover to see who her best friend was. Ken Chan. She’d have to track this Ken down and ask him what exactly he’d like changed on that page. With a strategic combination of cookies and sarcasm, she could probably train him to be a better reviewer.

    The schedule indicated that she had two weeks to make all the changes and get the book to the printer. Well, there was nothing like meeting a ridiculous deadline to make your name at a new company.

    “Hey, buddy. Ready for the grand tour?” Patty was back, rubbing her hands together.

    “You bet.” Susan smiled warmly at her. This woman would never find out how she really felt. Tech writers had to stick together, or else engineering would trample them mercilessly. Susan had pretended to be pals with lots of people over the years in the name of departmental loyalty.

    Patty beckoned her out into the hallway. “The first floor is pretty simple. It’s one long hallway. At this end, you have Philip’s office and the conference rooms we use for interviews. Then you have the lobby and Martha, who knows everything about everybody. I don’t know how she does it. Anyway, at the far end of the hallway, past the lobby, is Human Resources.”

    “I went there this morning.”

    “Ah, industrious woman. I’ll have to remember that.” Her smile was tight, and Susan got the feeling that Patty didn’t want her wandering around on her own. Too bad.

    Patty pointed to the fire door at the end of the hallway, just past Philip’s office. “Let’s go this way.”

    In the brightly lit stairwell, a racing bike leaned against the wall and a long flight of stairs led up to the second floor. Patty went through another door, and Susan found herself standing outside.

    “This is where the smokers hang out.”

    The grassy, tree-lined clearing contained two wooden picnic tables. Susan smelled stale cigarette smoke. “It’s pretty out here, except for the smell.”

    Patty pointed at the door, which had closed behind them. “You have to use your badge to get in this way.” She pulled a small beige plastic card from her pocket and held it in front of a black pad beside the lock. A small red light turned green, the lock clicked, and Patty opened the door.

    “How do I get a badge?”

    “HR. I thought you said you went there this morning?”

    Susan shrugged, not sure if she wanted to tell Patty about the red-haired guy who had stomped out. “They were busy. I have to go back this afternoon.”

    They went upstairs. As soon as Patty opened the door to the second floor, Susan heard a low hum of activity, something she’d missed downstairs. People talked, keyboards clicked, and phones rang.

    “This is where the action is,” Patty said.

    They were in a huge room filled with cubicles. A hallway stretched down the middle of the room. The cube walls were gray plastic panels a little lighter than the gray carpeting. Everything looked shiny and new.

    As they walked down the hallway, Patty pointed out where marketing, sales, and technical support people sat.

    “Tech support people make great reviewers,” Susan said. “They have to clean up the mess if a customer can’t figure out the manual, so they’re usually willing to put in the extra effort to make the manual accurate.”

    “Yeah? I never tried that.” Patty waved at the next few rows of cubes. “About half of the engineers sit in here. We’ll come back later, and I’ll introduce you to Tom Brent. He’s the lead engineer on both your projects.”

    The warren of cubicles ended, and Susan saw the elevator. That meant they were right over the lobby.

    “Here’s our library.” The open area across from the elevator doors had been walled off with chest-high metal bookcases. A large round table with chairs sat in the center of the area.

    “We’ve got a copy of every manual we’ve ever published, as well as some of our competitors’ books. We also have a lot of reference books and magazines.”

    “This will be useful, especially since I don’t know anything about bar code.”

    Patty smiled. “I’m sure you’ll catch on pretty quickly. Now I’m going to show you the most important room in the whole building.”

    “The payroll department?”

    “Nope.” She laughed. “The coffee room.”

    Susan followed her chuckling tour guide across the hall into the kitchen. It looked like the standard setup: microwave, sink, coffee maker, and fridge on one wall, and a soda pop machine, candy machine, trash can, and recycling containers along another wall. It had everything a hungry geek would need.

    “Are you a coffee drinker?”

    Susan shrugged. “As long as it’s hot, black, and caffeinated, I’m cool.”

    “We have the best coffee here. Check it out.”

    Susan walked up to the machine to humor her. It was an impressive industrial model, black and silver, with two coffee pots. Susan picked up the pot marked “regular” and sniffed. It did smell like great coffee.

    “Surprise, you’re on candid camera.”


    Patty pointed to the top of the refrigerator to Susan’s right. A small video camera pointed down at her, with a green light blinking.

    “It’s our coffee cam. You can check the status of the coffee pots day and night. We post it on our internal web page. We use streaming video. It’s a very sharp picture.”

    Susan jumped back from the coffee maker, out of range of the camera. “People all over the company just watched me sniff the coffee?”

    Patty was laughing. “Yup.”

    “Thanks so much.”

    “You’re welcome. Come on, I want to show you the Pit. Then we’d better go remind Tom that he has to take us out to lunch.”

    “Oh great, we’re going to a pit. What’s that, another booby trap?” Susan followed Patty out the door, shaking her head.

    The Pit was a large open room filled with desks and worktables piled high with computers. A radio tuned to a rock station competed with a small group arguing over a complex diagram on a whiteboard.

    A few people stood around talking, but most of the engineers were pounding away at their keyboards, oblivious to the chaos around them. Susan was glad to see that about a third of the engineers were women. More than a few people wore earphones, probably to drown out the noise. She didn’t know how anyone could get anything done in here.

    “This is where the other half of engineering sits.” Patty waved hello to a young man across the room, whose face turned red.

    “How can they work like this?”

    Patty shrugged. “Philip loves the Pit. He says it creates a collaborative atmosphere.”

    It was obvious she thought the VP of Engineering had another reason for liking the Pit. “Why does he really like it?”

    “These guys work their butts off all day long. They can’t sit in here and play solitaire or surf the web because the other guys won’t let them.” Patty made a face. “I wouldn’t last a week in here. Come on, let’s go see Tom.”

    They walked back to the engineers’ area, and Patty pointed across the tops of the cubicles toward the windows. “See the dinosaur?”

    Susan nodded. A green inflatable dinosaur stood on a tall filing cabinet about twenty feet away.

    “Tom’s office is next to it.”

    Patty plunged into the warren of cubicles and Susan followed. The passageway between the cubes was narrow and all the florescent ceiling lights in this area were off. The only illumination came from desk lamps and computer monitors. As they passed the doorway of each office, the occupants looked up curiously. Susan wondered how they could get anything done in this cave-like atmosphere.

    As they closed in on the giant lizard’s position, Susan could see that there were small planes circling it in an attack formation. The planes dangled from the ceiling with thread and they swayed in the breeze from the air vent.

    The last row of cubicles backed onto the outer wall of the building and had the one feature coveted in every company Susan had ever worked in: windows. The weak spring sun filtering in through the windows made this row brighter than the others.

    Tom’s was the third office down. He slouched in his swivel chair with his back to the doorway. His light brown hair needed to be trimmed. A strip of masking tape stretched diagonally across the doorway. It was clearly a warning that he didn’t want to be interrupted.

    “Hey there, Tom,” Patty chirped. “Ready for lunch?”

    Susan wished Patty wouldn’t ignore the masking tape like that. It was rude, and Susan didn’t want to tick off this guy right from the start. She’d need his help to come up to speed on both her projects. Establishing a good relationship with him could mean her success or failure at ESS.

    One of his hands hovered in midair over the telephone keypad. He shook his head. “Not today.”

    Patty looked as crestfallen. “You’re sure?”

    He nodded decisively, and Susan cut in before Patty started arguing. “That’s okay. Some other time. It works out for me, because I’d like to jump right into work. I’ll start incorporating the review comments into the Price Tag Designer manual.”

    Tom smiled for the first time. He got up and stepped to the door. “Welcome aboard, Susan. It’s great that you could start work here so quickly. We need the help.”

    He offered his hand under the strip of masking tape, and Susan shook it, feeling silly standing on either side of the tape.

    “I’m glad to be here. You guys rescued me from a sinking ship. I heard that the company had to relocate to the CEO’s garage over the weekend.”

    Tom winced. “I hope it’s a three-car garage.” He pulled a business card from his shirt pocket. “This has my extension on it. Call me if you have any questions. We should get together tomorrow. I’ll introduce you to the team.”

    Susan had brought a peanut butter sandwich and an orange for lunch, just in case no one volunteered to drag her out to lunch. She ate while making changes to the Price Tag Designer user’s manual, code named Carnival.

    She had to skip some of the reviewers’ comments because she didn’t understand them, but she was blasting through all the easy fixes in record time. Each comment she could resolve, she marked with a yellow highlighter so later on she could scan through the pages and see what was left to be done.

    “Knock knock.” Patty slipped into the guest chair by Susan’s desk. “I have interesting news.”

    Patty was bristling with excitement and she kept her voice low, as if she didn’t want to be overheard. That was funny since Susan had decided that her office was at the outer edge of the known universe. Who was there to eavesdrop?

    “You know how Tom was too busy to have lunch with us?”

    Susan nodded.

    “He was in total crisis mode. One of his engineers, Brian Carney, quit today. He didn’t give any notice or anything. He just resigned and walked out.”

    Brian had to be the person Susan had seen that morning yelling at Gloria. The question was, should she tell Patty what she’d seen? The cheerleader seemed to love gossip. She’d probably appreciate a little eye-witness information.

    “Is Brian about six feet tall, medium build? Short red hair, pale, freckles?”

    Patty nodded vigorously through the whole description. “He could be the poster child for Irish Americans. Why?”

    “I saw him this morning in HR. He stormed out of Gloria Smith’s office. He must have just resigned.”

    Patty was on the edge of the chair, and her perfume made Susan’s nose itch. “I can beat that.” Her eyes were gleaming.

    It wouldn’t surprise her if Patty already had a copy of the resignation letter. This woman lived to gossip.

    Patty pressed a beautifully manicured hand to her heart, as if she were swearing the truth. “Grapevine says he got Rebecca Cafferty pregnant, and because he’s Catholic, he couldn’t let her have an abortion. So she threw herself down the stairs either to kill herself or the baby.”

    Barbara had a badge waiting for Susan when she dropped by HR at three for her appointment with Gloria. The beige plastic card had a metal clip and a white sticker that listed Susan’s name, telephone extension, and employee number.

    “I’m number 68. Does that mean you guys hired 67 people before me?”

    Barbara nodded. “I’m number 31. I started working here before we even had a marketing department.”

    “The good old days!” Susan clipped the badge to her belt.

    Barbara grinned. “The front door is open Monday through Friday from eight to six. If you want to come in outside of those hours, you need to scan your badge to unlock the door, okay?”

    “That seems straightforward enough.” Susan wondered if they collected the information in a database somewhere and used it during performance reviews. She hated getting up early, but maybe she should try to get here before eight for a few months, just to make a good impression.

    Barbara pointed to Gloria’s office door. “You should go right in? Because she’s waiting for you?”

    Susan sat at a small round table in the corner of Gloria Smith’s office, filling out a stack of paperwork for the 401(k) plan, life insurance, and other benefits. Because she hardly ever got sick, she signed up for the HMO without a qualm. Gloria left the room to photocopy the various forms of identification that proved Susan could work in the US.

    Gloria’s manner was brisk and cheerful. If Susan hadn’t actually seen Brian quit this morning, she would never have guessed there had been trouble in HR.

    When Susan finished double-checking everything, Gloria took the paperwork and handed her a blank sealed envelope. She was beaming, and Susan got the impression that this was the best part of her job.

    “Here’s your first month’s salary. Unfortunately, we have to classify it as a bonus, and that means the government taxes it at a higher rate.”

    “The luxury tax.” Susan had received enough bonuses to dread the large bite taken by the IRS. She held the envelope in both hands. She had resisted figuring out exactly what her new salary would be. It was always more fun to let these kind of numbers surprise you.

    “Your regular paycheck will be a little larger than this.”

    Susan grinned. “Something to look forward to.”

    “It will also look a little different. We outsource that function to a company in Seattle. We’re having a little trouble getting the checks delivered on time, so Barbara usually passes them out on the first day of the month instead of the last.” Gloria consulted her calendar. “You’ll get your next check in two weeks.”

    “That’s April Fool’s Day,” Susan murmured.

    Gloria smiled. “Watch out. ESS is full of pranksters.”

    At six o’clock, Susan decided she had put in a good first day of work and she was free to take care of some housekeeping issues. She took the side stairs to the second floor and wandered around until she found the supply room. Armed with a can of foaming disinfectant spray cleaner and some paper towels, she backtracked to her tiny office, which she was now calling “the closet” in her mind. Rebecca Cafferty had been a slob, and it would probably take an hour to disinfect the place.

    At least her keyboard was brand new and squeaky clean.

    Her eyes watered from the cleaner’s sharp lemony smell as she sprayed and wiped the desk, phone, monitor, and every surface in the room.

    When she was finished, the office looked and smelled great. It was cool to have real walls and a door, but she was isolated from the rest of the tech writers in a way that would make it harder for her to become part of the team. Susan would have to make a conscious effort to make friends here.

    She pulled the bonus check from her back pocket and looked at her watch. She had plenty of time to make it to her bank since they’d opened a branch in her grocery store.

    Stephanie Nelson paced across the wooden deck at Susan’s house, working out the cramp in her calf. Every time she thought about going back to her own place, she got another charley horse. Her body was trying to tell her something. She knew what the message was: she had to get rid of Bill.

    When she went home tonight, she would tell him he had to move out. She’d be reasonable and give him until Sunday. Steph pictured her little one-bedroom apartment without all his stuff cluttering it up, and she smiled. The muscle spasm disappeared. She stretched her leg and savored the relief. Thank God she hadn’t put him on the lease. She might have ended up in a wheelchair.

    A car door slammed, and Steph peered over the edge of the deck into the dark yard. Before she could see Susan, she heard her cheerful whistling. Her first day must have gone well. This would be cause for celebration.

    She zipped into the kitchen and grabbed two bottles of beer from the fridge, hoping she wasn’t stealing from one of the guys. She twisted the top off one and held it out to her best friend as she reached the top stair.

    “Welcome home.”

    “Hey, thanks.” Susan dropped her briefcase, took the frosty bottle, and flopped into a lawn chair. She took a long swallow and seemed to melt into the chair. There was a chemical, lemony smell clinging to Susan. She must have done a little cleaning.

    Steph leaned against the wood railing overlooking the yard, which was now engulfed in shadow. “How was your first day at the new salt mine?”

    Susan stuck out her right hand, palm down, and wagged it from side to side, indicating an even mix of good and bad. Steph grinned. That had been their first Girl Scout Troop leader’s signature gesture, and it always cracked her up to see Susan use it.

    “They kept you there late enough.” It was just after eight.

    “I worked till seven and then went to the bank to cash my first check.”

    Steph whistled. “So they really paid you a whole month’s salary just for showing up?”

    “Yup.” Susan chuckled. “I love this company.”

    Steph took a sip of her beer, relieved. This meant Susan could pay the bills that had been piling up. She hadn’t said much, but Steph could tell she’d been upset when her last paycheck from Web-Tech bounced.

    “What else happened today? Tell me everything.”

    Susan pried her shoes off and wriggled her toes. “I’ll give you the high points.”

    Steph grinned. The world Susan worked in was completely alien to her. Steph ran her own housecleaning service, made her own hours, and dropped any client who got too bossy or weird.

    Susan held up one finger. “I’ve been exiled to a different floor from everyone else, and my office is the size of a walk-in closet.”

    At least she had a real office this time. Steph had seen the cubicles she sat in at Wolff and Web-Tech, and she couldn’t imagine spending the day in a little cage like that.

    Susan held up a second finger. “Somebody assigned a gossipy, former cheerleader type to show me the ropes.”

    Steph hoped the deepening darkness hid her grin. Susan wouldn’t admit it, but she hated being told what to do and wouldn’t be predisposed to liking anyone whose job it was to show her around.

    Third finger: “One of the engineers I’m supposed to be working with walked out today. The cheerleader says it’s because he got someone in the company pregnant, but that seems like wild speculation.”

    “Wow, it sounds like a nerdy soap opera. I can’t wait to hear the next installment.” Susan always got hooked pretty quickly into the gossip grapevine, even though the news she gathered wasn’t usually very spectacular.

    “You know what, Steph? None of that matters. I have a good feeling about ESS. They’re really going somewhere with this Activity Tracker thing, and I know I can help them.” Susan sighed. “I feel like I’ve been miles off course, and this is my chance to get my life back on track.”

    “Good for you.” Steph knew that Susan had been disappointed with herself for bailing out of Wolff over Jack. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the company she went to had been a success, but when Web-Tech went down the tubes, it had been like rubbing salt in an open wound. Steph hoped Susan was right about ESS. Behind her back, so Susan wouldn’t notice, Steph tapped her knuckles against the wood railing for luck.

    Susan’s voice brightened. “I almost forgot to tell you. They have a cat named Lucky. She’s an orange shorthair, very friendly. She lives in the IT department.”

    Steph didn’t know what IT stood for, but she loved cats. Her cleaning lady instincts kicked in. “Aren’t they worried about fur getting into the computers?”

    Susan shook her head. “I guess not. All the really expensive computers are locked up in an air-conditioned room. I’m sure they don’t let the cat in there. Hey, that reminds me, I got something for you.”

    Susan pulled something out of her jeans pocket and tossed it to Steph, who caught it in the dark. Steph turned it over in her hands. It was a little fabric-covered pillow, but the insides were crunchy. A catnip vet!


    Her tabby cat, Killer, had been despondent since he lost his little man-shaped catnip toy with the word “vet” printed on its chest. It had disappeared last week when her problems with Bill had escalated into loud arguments. Only a passive-aggressive jerk would stoop to picking on a person’s kitty.

    Steph pointed the little pillow at Susan. “What made you go to a pet store?”

    All Steph could see was the white gleam of Susan’s smile in the darkness.



    Chapter 5


    Standing outside the double doors of the IT department, Dave Bennett paused. Having Lucky at work was worth a few problems, but he was getting tired of having to brush off Philip’s constant, completely justified complaints about the smell. He took a deep breath and held it before pushing through the swinging doors.

    The first thing he noticed was that no one was manning the help desk. It was well after nine. Someone should be sitting there looking cheerful. Dave blew out what would probably be his last fresh air for the morning and then inhaled cautiously. To his surprise, he didn’t feel like gagging. He turned to check the litter box, but it was gone.

    “Damn it,” he muttered.

    Philip must have finally made good on his threats to send Lucky to the pound. Dave dropped his mail and Starbucks cup on the help desk and yelled, “Who’s here? What happened to Lucky?”

    Andy came barreling around the bookcases in a lime green t-shirt and black cycling shorts--not exactly your classic St. Patrick’s Day attire.

    “What do you mean?”

    “Lucky’s gone.” If Andy had been at the help desk where he was supposed to be, he would have known the cat was gone.

    “Gone? No way, man. We’ve been playing fetch all morning. She’s here somewhere.” Andy started making kissing noises and dropped to his knees to look under a chair.

    Dave looked around, confused. “Then why doesn’t it smell in here? Where’s the litter box? I thought for sure Philip took her to the pound or something.”

    Andy sat back on his heels. The lime shirt now looked like a dress, but Dave wasn’t going to say anything. Commenting on Andy’s weird clothes had only prompted the guy to push the envelope even further.

    “We have a new litter box. Susan, she’s that new writer? She came in this morning and set it all up. Even showed me how to maintain it.”

    Rebecca’s replacement had been here! The thought crushed Dave’s chest like a vise, even though he’d heard last week that ESS had hired someone. Pretty soon, people would forget that Rebecca Cafferty had ever worked here--

    “What the hell!” Something bounced off his shoulder, jolting him out of the familiar spiral of grief. The thing on the floor looked like a dead mouse. He spun to see Lucky crouched on the bookshelf above him.

    “Catnip mouse,” Andy explained as he got up from the floor. “Lucky loves it. Susan brought some toys, too.”

    Dave picked up the mouse by its damp rawhide tail and tossed in across the room. Lucky leapt from the bookcase, pounced on the mouse, and strutted into the back office with her prey in her mouth.

    Andy pointed out the new litter box. It was a gray covered box with a small opening in the front. The rounded corners and chunky design reminded Dave of an old VT-100 terminal. Pushed out of the way against a bookcase, the litter box looked like just another piece of computer equipment.

    “We made sure Lucky knows how to get in and out. She really likes the privacy. And the litter is special.”

    Feeling like the straight man in a bad comedy routine, Dave took the bait. “What’s so special about it?”

    “Let me show you.” Andy lifted the cover from the litter box and grabbed Dave’s Starbucks cup.

    “Hey, that’s my latte!”

    “Chill, boss man. I only need like one sip.” Andy held him off with one outstretched arm and poured a little coffee into the sandy litter. “Imagine this is cat pee.”

    “I’d rather not.” Dave grabbed the cup back. “I paid three bucks for it.”

    Andy crouched by the box and used a big slotted spatula to scoop a perfect little ball of litter out of the box. “It clumps up when it comes into contact with a liquid. If we throw the clumps away, there’s nothing left to stink up our area.”

    Dave nodded thoughtfully. “Cool. But I didn’t know Lucky drank lattes.”

    Andy laughed and slapped his thigh. “A joke! Dave made a joke.” He raised his voice so that everyone in the back office could here. “Somebody mark it on the calendar!”

    Dave grinned and headed for his office, feeling better than he had for awhile. With the litter box problem solved, Philip would have to get off his back.

    He tossed his mail onto his desk. He’d have to thank this Susan person, maybe take her out to lunch. She had no idea what a huge favor she’d done for him. Last week, on the phone, he’d reluctantly promised Roger Walker to make his roommate feel welcome. Now he was looking forward to it.

    He sipped his latte. It wasn’t hot anymore, but at least it wasn’t cat pee.

    Because she’d had good luck working on the Carnival project yesterday, Susan decided to stick with it for a while longer. She found a copy of the Price Tag Designer program on her PC and started it running. The more she knew about the program, the easier it would be to revise the manual.

    She grabbed the review copy Rebecca had published and opened it to the appendix. The tutorial looked like a good place to start.

    Susan worked through the first few steps without a hitch. The instructions were easy to follow. Then she ran into trouble. Step four said to type “Sarah’s Dogsleds” into the field as the fictitious company name. But “Computer World” was the company name on the sample price tag at the bottom of the page. Susan flipped through the rest of the tutorial. All the sample price tags were for Computer World, and none of them matched the instructions.

    Curious, she pulled the old copy of the Designer manual off her bookshelf. When she opened the book to the appendix, she saw a completely different set of sample price tags. The name “Sarah’s Dogsleds” stood out in bold type next to a tiny picture of a barking dog. The tags also contained bar code symbols and other information. The dogsled tags looked a little amateurish, but they matched the instructions exactly.

    Rebecca must have updated the illustrations and just assumed that she’d have time to go back and fix the instructions later. But then she had run out of time, in every sense of the word. Susan shivered.

    Maybe Mark Eastman knew something about the new art. She’d have to ask him about it. But first, she wanted to finish the tutorial, following the instructions in the older book. She found step four and started typing “Susan’s Dogsleds” in the company name field. She might as well have some fun with it.

    An hour later, Susan finished the tutorial. She’d even printed out the sample price tags onto sheets of stickers she found near the laser printer outside her office. The tutorial had been kind of fun, and her new-found familiarity with the program would probably help her decipher some of the comments reviewers had made.

    But to be completely honest, she felt a little bored and lonely. It would be nice to get through the “impressing them” phase and make some real friends here.

    She put her feet up on the edge of her desk and leaned back in her swivel chair in the semi-darkness of her tiny office. She had turned off her overhead light because the jittery florescent had been making her tense. She needed to ask for a real lamp.

    She stared out into the sliver of hallway she could see. No one had walked down the hallway today or yesterday. The only person who’d come to see her was Patty, who apparently had to because she’d been assigned to mentor Susan.

    There weren’t even any normal office noises, except for the hum of the air vent fan over her head.

    She was all alone down here. Maybe everyone in the whole company had gone out for coffee. Maybe there had been a fire drill and she’d somehow missed it. She sniffed the air for smoke. Nothing.

    The peace and quiet were driving her crazy. But she was supposed to have a neighbor, the VP of Engineering. Susan sat up. Maybe Martha knew where Philip was. He was supposed to be an ogre, but even that would be better than this loneliness.

    She strolled to the lobby, noticing that she could hear the soft sounds of Martha redirecting phone calls as she got closer to the receptionist’s desk.

    She waited while Martha finished a call. The woman had on a bright green sundress today, which was quite a change from her Grateful Dead outfits.

    “Can I do something for you?” She smiled, and Susan noticed the laugh lines around her brown eyes. Martha was older than she’d first thought.

    “That’s some dress.”

    “I was a leprechaun in at least one of my previous lives.”

    Susan grinned, not sure if she was joking. “When will Philip Corbin be in? I haven’t had a chance to meet him yet.”

    “It is pretty quiet down here when he’s not around. He’ll be in later today.”

    “Great, thanks.” That gave Susan time to think up some way to show him that she had already made a lot of progress. It couldn’t hurt to impress upper management right away.

    “Don’t thank me until you’ve met him.”

    Susan wondered what Philip could have done to antagonize Martha as she headed up to the second floor to visit Mark. She knocked on the metal frame of his cube and waited for him to look up before she started talking to him.

    “Good morning, Susan. What can I help you with?”

    Mark was a friendly, handsome man in his late thirties with prematurely graying hair. Susan had liked him immediately during her interview. He had the lean, muscular build of a runner. He also had a thick gold wedding band on his left hand, and Susan bet that his wife had picked out the most conspicuous ring in the jewelry store.

    “I hit a snag working on the Price Tag Designer user’s manual, and I wanted to get your opinion before I changed anything.”

    “Okay.” He said the word slowly as he tucked his pen behind his ear. “But don’t expect an informed opinion. Rebecca kept to herself about her work. Have a seat.” He lifted a stack of papers off the guest chair next to his desk.


    He spun in his chair, holding the stack of papers. There wasn’t a bare spot anywhere in his office. The desk was buried under layers of paper and books that looked like neat stacks which had long ago toppled onto each other. Mark sighed and put the stack on the floor between his sneakered feet.

    “I brought props.” Susan placed the older book on a low mound of color brochures on the corner of his desk, and opened it to the appendix. “This is the first version of the manual we published. Appendix A is a tutorial for creating bar code price tags with our software.”

    He looked at the page. “Sure is.”

    “It’s not a bad tutorial.” Susan noticed he was grinning. “What? Did I say something funny?”

    “I’m glad you think it’s not bad. I wrote it two years ago.”

    “Oh, man.” Embarrassment made her checks burn. “Did I mention how entertaining it was? I especially like the little dog.”

    “Yeah, I’m so sure. What was your question?” His smile told her that he hadn’t really taken offense.

    “The tutorial showed me exactly how to design and print four sample bar code price tags. The price tags for Sarah’s Dogsleds aren’t very fancy or realistic looking,” she said apologetically, watching his eyes widen in a comic expression of outrage. “But that doesn’t matter. The steps are easy to follow. Anyone who finishes the tutorial has learned enough to go off and make really elaborate price tags for themselves.”

    “Thanks, I think.”

    She handed him Rebecca’s photocopied review draft, open to the appendix they were talking about. “Now, here’s the draft review Rebecca put out just before she-- Well, this is the last draft she put out for review. She put in all new price tags.”

    Mark snapped his fingers. “I remember this. She gave me a courtesy copy. Hang on a second.”

    He rummaged through the mess on his desk, lifting clumps of paper and squinting at what was revealed. There didn’t seem to be any hint of organization to the mounds of paper, and Susan wondered how he could work like that.

    “Ah ha!” He was halfway down the stack under his phone when he uncovered the distinctive orange cover of Rebecca’s draft. Smiling, he wiggled the quarter-inch thick book free. Yellow sticky notes stuck out like fringe along the top edge, indicating the pages where he had made notes.

    “Here we go.” He flipped through the pages until he found the one Susan was looking at. “I marked it up because I thought there were real problems with the new price tags,” he winked at her, “not because I was annoyed that she wanted to rewrite something I wrote.”

    She chuckled. No one liked to have their stuff rewritten.

    He handed her his copy, which had his comments scribbled in red ink on the page. “First of all, she’s using a real company name here, Computer World. That’s a big national chain. I don’t want them coming after us for trademark infringement.”

    Susan nodded, recognizing the tiny graphic of the Earth on the price tag. “I think that’s really what their logo looks like, too.”

    “The second problem is that she didn’t rewrite the instructions to match the new pictures.”

    “That’s what I noticed. If I keep these illustrations, I’ll have to do a lot of rewriting. Even though we added some new features to the product, there’s no need to redo this appendix.”

    Mark grinned again. “Good writing is timeless.”

    “What does this mean?” Susan pointed to a red circle Mark had drawn around the bar code. His scribbled comment, “Does Not Match,” made no sense to her.

    He shook his head. “I don’t understand how she could make such a basic mistake.”

    “But what doesn’t match?”

    He pointed to a tiny string of letters and numbers printed directly under the bar code. “See this? It’s supposed to tell you what the bar code says. And when I checked, I found that they didn’t match.”

    Mark took a gray, rectangular device from one of his desk drawers. “See for yourself.”

    He pointed one end of the scanner at the bar code in the book Susan was holding. A red line of light slid across the bar code, and the scanner beeped. Mark turned the machine around so she could see that the numbers and letters on the small display window did not match what was printed in the manual.

    She shrugged. “Does it really matter?”

    “I think so. Any customer who noticed it would probably lose confidence in the whole tutorial.”

    She nodded. “I’ll buy that. Hey, I hope I don’t sound too stupid, but why doesn’t the bar code just say something like $45.99? What is this jumble of letters and numbers?”

    “That’s not a stupid question,” he reassured her. “What you’re looking at is the item number or code name for the product. Kind of like when you order something from a catalog and you have to tell them what the item number is.”

    She grinned. She’d spent enough time and money catalog shopping to understand exactly what he meant.

    “The advantage of putting a code name on your price tag is that when the cashier rings up the item, the computer can check the database for the current price, update the inventory, or even contact the supplier if there are none left in stock.”

    She thought of the how the price of her favorite diet pop fluctuated weekly at the grocery store. “And the price can change without having to change the actual price tags stuck on each item on the shelf.”

    “You got it.”

    He glanced at his watch. He was probably late for a meeting, and here she was taking up all his time asking basic questions.

    “You’ve been a big help, Mark.” She gathered up her books. “If I have any trouble restoring your illustrations, I’ll let you know.”

    “Hold on a second.” He frowned slightly. “I don’t want to be rude, but I have to ask. Haven’t you even looked at The Bar Code Bible yet?”

    “The what?”

    Mark half stood, reaching for a thick black book from the shelf over his desk. “It’s our primary reference tool for bar code. This book will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about bar code but were afraid to ask.”

    She took the book, surprised at its heaviness. “This would be a big help.”

    “Patty didn’t give you a copy?”

    Susan shook her head. She flipped through the book quickly. The pages were loaded with illustrations of different bar code symbologies. This was just what she needed so she didn’t have to waste people’s time with stupid questions.

    She looked up in time to see him glance in the direction of Patty’s cubicle and mutter, “Maybe she forgot.”

    Susan shrugged casually, even though she was annoyed. Patty had told her she would pick up all the bar code information she’d need as she went along. Bad advice like that could sabotage her chances to make a good impression. She would have to watch out for Patty.

    “May I borrow this book for awhile?”

    “Yeah. I’ll order a new copy for you.” He scanned his desk, and then patted the papers in front of him with both hands. He seemed to be looking for something.

    “And you should probably keep my review comments, in case I caught something everyone else missed.” He said this absently as he continued searching. When he patted his chest where his shirt pocket would be if he weren’t wearing a t-shirt, she realized he was probably looking for a pen so he could make himself a note to order the book.

    “It’s behind your ear.”

    He grinned sheepishly and grabbed the pen. “Thanks. Now where’s my scratch pad?”

    As she headed back toward her closet on the first floor, she nodded hello to a couple of people who looked vaguely familiar. Too bad Mark wasn’t her official buddy. Maybe no one would notice if she just started using him instead of Patty.

    When Susan logged back on to the network, she received an email message from Tom inviting her to sit in on the engineering status meeting at 3:00. She made a note on her calendar and wondered if she needed to bring anything to the meeting.

    Tom probably expected her to just sit there and listen. If she could make some headway on the artwork problem in Appendix A, she’d actually have something to report. At least she could look over the file and estimate how long it would take her to restore the original price tags. That way, she could look like she was on top of things. Which she was, she assured herself.

    Susan launched her word processing program and opened the file for Appendix A. As she scrolled through the pages, she saw the price tags for Sarah’s Dogsleds. There was no sign of the Computer World price tags printed in Rebecca’s review draft.

    She dialed Mark’s extension. When he answered, she quickly described what she had found and asked what he thought.

    He sighed. “Maybe Rebecca changed her mind and restored the original illustrations herself. I don’t think there’s any way to figure out what she was doing.” He paused for a second before continuing more quietly. “If you listen to the rumors, she might even have been using drugs here at work. If that were the case, there’s no telling what stupid decisions she might have made.”

    Dead air hung between them as Susan tried to think up a suitable reply. If Rebecca had been irresponsible enough to get high at work, then she could have easily made a thousand little mistakes in every manual she touched. Susan would have to keep her eyes peeled to try and catch them.

    “Anyway, this is good news. You wanted my old, boring price tags back,” he joked, “and now you’ve got them.”

    After she hung up, Susan smiled at the irony. Usually the new writer tries to make a good impression by rewriting and improving everything. But here she was convincing Mark that her best plan of attack was to do nothing. Well, they both knew that sometimes the best thing was to change as little as possible. Nothing irritated customers as much as having to relearn how to use a manual every time a new version of the product came out.

    Her computer beeped, indicating that she had new email. It was a message from Martha and said Philip would be in his office for the next few hours.

    This was great news. Susan sent off a quick reply to Martha, thanking her for the information. She couldn’t wait to meet Philip. He was, for all intents and purposes, the manager who could have the biggest impact on her career at ESS. Sure, Mark Eastman stood between them in the chain of command, but Mark was just a glorified babysitter with his Lead Writer title. If Susan wanted to get anywhere, she’d have to impress Philip.

    He was probably a very busy guy, but he might welcome a three-minute distraction. Susan would be enthusiastic and brief, like a fresh breeze. She grinned. The man didn’t stand a chance.

    Susan logged off the network automatically, a security habit she’d acquired at Wolff. During her first week there, she had come back from the bathroom to find a crowd of people in her cubicle all waving money at her. While she was gone, someone had sent email out from her account saying she wanted to raffle off her car to the first fifty people who would buy a chance for twenty bucks. It had been a good way to get to know the whole gang quickly.

    The hallway was as empty and quiet as usual, but the door to Philip’s office was open for the first time. She reached the doorway and knocked on the open door.

    The man at the large wooden table in the middle of the room didn’t look away from his computer monitor. Instead, he held up an imperious finger and kept typing. Susan waited in the doorway as the seconds ticked by.

    He had light brown hair tied back in a ponytail that draped over his shoulder onto his chest. He wore jeans and a t-shirt with the ESS logo on it. It was hard to tell because he was sitting down, but he looked tall. His shoulders were wide and his arms looked soft.

    The keyclicks feature was enabled so that the keyboard clicked every time he pressed a key. Susan listened to the clickety clacking music. He had to be doing 120 words a minute, and he never looked down at the keyboard. This guy was a heck of a touch typist.

    His desk was a pair of charming pine country kitchen tables arranged in an L shape. He sat in a high-backed, black leather executive chair. His bare feet were crossed under the table.

    Philip Corbin looked like a Berkeley dude and typed like a Kelly Girl. Susan grinned. For some reason, she had expected the usual buttoned-down, uptight VP.

    Not wanting him to catch her staring at him, she switched her attention to the room. You could easily fit fifteen people in here for meetings. Two large windows behind him framed a lovely view of the tree-lined parking lot.

    The right side of the room contained bookcases and a conference table heaped with papers and books. The left side of the room was dominated by a black leather couch and two matching chairs. A high-tech silver briefcase and pair of worn Birkenstock sandals shared space by the side of his table.

    A full minute had probably ticked by before he finally stopped typing and looked up. “Yes?”

    She walked to the front of his desk and put out her hand. “I’m Susan Miles, the new technical writer.”

    His handshake was quick, and his smile was cool. “Ah, yes. Another new hire. Welcome.”

    It was time to impress him with her enthusiasm. “I’m very excited--”

    He waved a hand to cut her off. “Yes, I know. ESS is a great place to work. I’m pleased that you joined the team.” He jabbed a finger at her. “Nice resume.”

    “Thank you.” She hadn’t realized he’d seen it. He hadn’t interviewed her. But she guessed it was natural that the VP look over resumes.

    “I read those technical articles on designing software testbeds you co-authored last year. The theory was uninspired,” he shrugged dismissively, “but the writing was solid.”

    “Thank you.” Inwardly, she winced, but she didn’t want him to know he’d scored a hit. The articles had been very well received, and her co-author had been promoted into management as a result.

    “Are you settling in okay?”

    She nodded, braced for the next insult.

    He leaned forward with his elbows on the table, suddenly very charming and friendly. “Is there anything I can help you with right now?”

    She shook her head.

    “Really? No questions? Come on, what were you working on right before you came in?”

    She quickly described the problematic price tags in Appendix A. He frowned. Susan explained that the original price tags had somehow been restored to the file.

    Philip nodded approvingly. “That’s great. Let’s just forget all about those new price tags.”

    Relieved that he hadn’t responded with another dig, she asked, “Are you familiar with them?”

    “I knew what the writer was trying to accomplish. But no one on the engineering team wanted her to waste so much time on the appendix when there was so much important work to be done.” He steepled his hands and brought the tips of his fingers to his lips. “Don’t mention this to Tom or Ken. It might upset them to be reminded that they disagreed with her right before she was taken away from us.”

    Susan nodded, wondering if he really cared about anyone’s feelings. Maybe he didn’t want their grief to impact productivity.

    Philip glanced at his watch. “Has anyone told you about your predecessor?”

    “Not really.” It struck her as odd that he hadn’t once used the woman’s name.

    He shook his head. “She was a tragic figure. Intelligent and talented, but drawn to the dark side of life.” He stared off into space and sighed. His features settled into a pensive expression but his eyes remained cool.

    Susan wondered if he practiced looking sad in the mirror. She would bet money he didn’t give a hoot about Rebecca Cafferty. He was just putting on a sensitive sixties guy kind of show. It matched the long hair and bare feet, but it didn’t ring true. If he really had the soul of a beat poet, he couldn’t be the jerk that people made him out to be.

    “Thanks for your help, Philip. I’m glad I finally got the chance to meet you.” She injected just the right amount of enthusiasm into the lie. He nodded regally, and she left.

    Poor Rebecca. Putting up with this guy probably made the woman throw herself down those stairs.

    A knock on the door frame made Susan look up. “Yes?”

    A tall, muscular man filled her doorway. He was wearing battered tan work boots, stiff new jeans and a green plaid flannel shirt. He had to be a lumberjack who wandered into the building from a nearby forest, because he sure didn’t look like any engineer she’d ever worked with.

    He stuck out a huge hand. “I’m Dave Bennett. Roger Walker asked me to say hello to you.”

    Susan shook his hand from her seat. If she stood up, they’d be pressed together in her sardine tin of an office. The idea was tempting, but extremely unprofessional. Memorizing his name would be easy: Dave, Dave, be my sex slave.

    “Glad to meet you, Dave.”

    His handshake was warm and not too tight, and it left her hand tingling. This was Roger’s friend in IT? She couldn’t picture elegant, uptight Roger with this guy.

    “I also wanted to thank you for upgrading my hardware.”

    His expression was deadpan, and it took her a few seconds to figure out he meant the new litter box. She laughed.

    “You’re welcome. I like cats. When I heard Philip complain about the smell, I knew I could fix that bug.”

    “Can I repay you? That equipment must have cost a bundle.”

    “No way. Consider it my good deed for the day.”

    They grinned at each other. He must have worn braces as a kid, because he had perfectly straight white teeth. His dark brown hair was cut short. The light in her office was so bad, she couldn’t tell the color of his eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

    “Maybe Lucky and I can take you to lunch to thank you.”

    A smart answer popped into her head. “Friskies Buffet?”

    He shook his head gravely. “I never let Lucky pick the restaurant. Actually, we could walk across the street to the Thai restaurant. You probably couldn’t eat enough Phad Thai to make up for what you spent, but you could try.”

    It might not be smart to have lunch alone with the best looking man in the whole company on her second day at work, but her brain obviously wasn’t communicating with her mouth.

    “I love Thai food. What time?”

    They decided to meet in the front lobby at 11:30 to beat the lunch crowd. After he left, Susan leaned back in her chair and savored the sensation of her racing pulse. He’d knocked her socks off. She looked down and saw green and blue argyle peeking out from the bottom of her jeans. Well, figuratively.

    She hadn’t had an initial reaction like this since she met Jack.

    She bolted out of her chair.

    Maybe it was time to test her theory that a little prior investigation could have averted that particular disaster.

    Susan found Patty in the copy room, which turned out to be the closet directly above the one Susan was using for an office. A large photocopier dominated the room, and boxes of paper lined the wall. Patty had her back to the door, watching the pages shoot out of the copier.

    Susan paused in the doorway. What she wanted to know, she couldn’t ask for directly. Patty was too much of a gossip to be trusted with any hint of the attraction Susan felt for Dave. She would have to be sneaky.

    Patty was wearing some kind of safari girl outfit. Her shorts were long and made out of a tan, heavy cotton material. Her sleeveless vest had a multitude of small pockets designed for carrying snake bite kits and water purifying tablets. In deference to the holiday, she wore a kelly green t-shirt and matching socks. Her feet were encased in pristine hiking boots that had never seen terrain rougher than a mall parking lot. The outfit looked like something you’d put on a Barbie doll. Susan bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing.

    “Hey, Patty.”

    She turned and gave Susan her usual camp counselor smile. “You found the copy machine. I guess there isn’t much left for me to show you.”

    Susan shook her head. “Oh no, I’ve still got questions.”

    Patty’s smile widened. The copier beeped and stopped spitting out pages. She leaned over to read the display.

    “Out of paper.” Patty made it sound like a personal insult. She grabbed a ream of paper from an open box, slammed open the copier door, and pulled out a paper tray. Manhandling the machine must have made her feel good, because as she slipped the blank pages into the paper tray, she smiled sweetly at Susan.

    “Did you want to ask me something now?”

    Susan glanced over her shoulder as if to make sure no one was around. “Just a question about how things work here.”

    Patty slammed the copier door shut and hit the button. The copier hummed back to life and resumed spitting out photocopies. “Meaning what?”

    Susan opened her mouth and then closed it. She wanted to look like she was a bit embarrassed and not sure how to ask her question.

    Patty’s eyebrows went up impatiently. “Well?”

    “It’s easier if I tell you a story.” Susan cleared her throat. “The summer before my senior year, I interned at a small software company. I went in one afternoon to ask one of the most senior engineers there a few questions, and he made a pass at me.”

    “No.” She said it as if she didn’t believe it, and Susan knew she had her hooked.

    “Oh yes.” Susan tugged absently at the hem of her shirt. “He said he’d answer my questions if I answered his.”

    “No!” This time it was almost a cheer.

    Susan made a face. “I was so naïve. I thought he just wanted to get to know the new hire.”

    “What did he ask you?”

    Susan had found over the years that the most effective way to tell this part of the story was to make her face expressionless and look the other person straight in the eyes. “Was I wearing any panties and would I let him take a peek.”

    “What did you say?” Patty screeched the question.

    “The only thing he’d get a peek at was the inside of a courtroom if he ever said anything sexually suggestive to me again. Then I grabbed my notebook and ran out.”

    “I certainly hope you sued him.”

    Susan shook her head. “It was my first internship. I just wanted to work hard, beef up my resume and get a passing grade from my faculty advisor.”

    Patty started to argue, but Susan cut her off. “I must have looked shell shocked, because as I made my way back to my cubicle, one of the woman in the writing department grabbed me. She figured out what happened and apologized.”

    “Why would she apologize?”

    “She said she should have warned me. This guy started drinking every day at lunch and hit on anything female that went into his office in the afternoon. She said none of the women would go down there after eleven.”

    Patty looked outraged. “That means there was a pattern of sexual harassment! You should have sued him and the company for letting it happen.”

    If she didn’t distract the woman, Susan was going to have to endure a lecture, and she’d never find out anything about Dave. So she lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug.

    “I’d handle the whole thing differently if it happened today.”

    Patty narrowed her eyes. “So what does this have to do with ESS?”

    “I was wondering if there’s anyone here I need to watch out for.”

    Patty hooted. “Well, no one here gets drunk and acts out sexually, if that’s what you mean.” She pointed a finger at Susan. “When you don’t file charges, you help perpetuate that kind of behavior, you know.”

    “You’re right,” Susan conceded. That seemed to pacify Patty, who leaned back against the copier and stared up at the ceiling as if mentally running through the ESS org chart.

    “We have more problems with engineers who refuse to review our manuals.” She paused. “But there is a guy in shipping who stares at your breasts when he talks to you.”

    It was important for Susan to look like this was exactly the type of information she was looking for, so she asked, “What’s his name?”

    “Shut the door.”

    Susan pushed the door closed and leaned against it, clenching her jaw to keep her smile hidden.


    Susan hadn’t met him yet, but she would remember the name. “Anybody else I should watch out for?”

    Patty frowned. “There is this one married guy in engineering who keeps asking me out, but I think that’s personal, not some kind of pattern you’d have to be concerned about. Our glorious VP, Philip, can be difficult. You must have figured that out already. But he wouldn’t make a pass. He doesn’t seem to notice women in that way.”

    Susan raised her eyebrows, wondering if that meant what she thought it did.

    Patty caught the look and shook her head. “He’s not gay; he’s married. I think he considers us all drones.”

    It was getting stuffy in the closet with the door closed, but Susan wouldn’t give up until she heard what Patty thought of Dave.

    “Is anyone completely harmless?”

    Patty grinned. “Andy in IT. He lives with a lady cop who keeps him on the straight and narrow. Dave, too. He’s in charge of IT. You meet him yet?”

    Susan shrugged and shook her head as if she weren’t sure. Inside, she could feel her heart pound. This was exactly what she wanted to know.

    “He’s handsome, but he hasn’t gone out with anyone here. Some people call him The Monk. Not to his face though.” Patty paused. “Well, he seemed to get close to Rebecca, the girl you replaced. Some people would tell you they were sleeping together, but I don’t think so.”

    Susan’s stomach turned. If Dave had been dating a woman who died, he was probably in the middle of a terrible, grief-stricken rebound.

    “Why don’t you think so?”

    Patty didn’t seem to notice anything other than Susan’s interest in her opinion. She patted her hair, checking her ponytail. “I watched them. They didn’t exhibit the right body language.”

    Something inside Susan responded to Patty’s confidence. She felt herself relax. Mission accomplished. Mr. Dave Bennett wasn’t sleeping his way through the company, and he hadn’t been romantically involved with Rebecca.

    Now Susan had to distract Patty so she didn’t realize what she’d really been after. She leaned forward and made herself sound interested. “So, who’s this married guy who keeps asking you out?”

    Tom waited for Philip to finish scanning the short list of engineers he wanted to try to lure away from their current jobs to replace Brian Carney. St. Patrick’s Day just wasn’t the same without red-headed Brian cracking Irish jokes.

    He crossed his arms, trying to resist the urge to slap his hands against his legs in time with the interminable drumbeat in his head. Either he’d had way too much caffeine this morning, or the stress was about to kill him.

    Philip stood in a patch of weak sunlight by a second-story window overlooking the front door and parking lot. He looked up from the list and pointed outside.

    “Our Dave must have a soft spot for tech writers.”

    Tom watched the tops of Dave Bennett and Susan Miles’ heads as they walked across the parking lot together. He laughed nervously, wondering what Philip meant. Had Dave been close to Rebecca, too?

    His eyes were blue. Not a cool, pale blue, either. More like a warm, deep blue, flecked with white. They had been the first thing Susan noticed when she met Dave in the lobby for lunch.

    Hiding behind her menu, she took stock of her symptoms in a clinical, detached manner. The racing feeling in her chest and an inappropriate urge to giggle were the primary problems. This was exactly how she felt when she drank a Black Russian or a grande mocha latte too fast.

    Her attraction to the manager of the IT department was both wildly inappropriate and more fun than she’d had in a long time. After her fiasco of a relationship with Jack, Susan had vowed to remain celibate for a year. In the six and a half months since she’d made that vow, no one had appealed to her. Until now.

    Maybe he was wearing a genetically engineered pheromone cologne and she was having an involuntary biochemical reaction. But that didn’t make sense. Patty had called him The Monk. A monk wouldn’t use high-tech flirtation aids.

    Susan bit her lip. As long as she didn’t bat her eyelids at him, she’d be okay. This was, after all, only her second day on the job. If she flirted with him today, he’d never see her as a highly qualified communications professional. He’d always think of her in a sexual context.

    Of course, she had already made a very strange first impression on him with the clumping kitty litter. She rolled her eyes. He probably thought of her as Roger Walker’s kitty litter pal.

    She put the menu down, impatient with her hormones and her twisted brain. There was no reason to keep pretending to study the menu; she had decided to order the lunch special when she had first walked into the Thai restaurant.

    He had been idly looking around the restaurant, but he gave her his full attention. His wide smile radiated friendly interest without a hint of flirtation. Susan relaxed. He had no idea she was panting over him. She wracked her brain for something to talk about. Her roommate, Roger, seemed like a good place to start.

    “How do you know Roger Walker?”

    “We met at a party. Mutual friends introduced us.” He shrugged. “You know how it is, people think if you do anything with computers you must have a lot in common with anyone else in the industry.”

    Susan nodded, but she couldn’t imagine fussy Roger having much in common with Dave.

    “But we hit it off. He’s a nice guy, once he stopped trying to sell me hardware I didn’t need.” Dave grinned. “We went kayaking a couple of times on Lake Union.”

    “That sounds like fun, although I can’t picture Roger in a kayak.” Susan let herself imagine Dave, with his wide shoulders and muscular arms, paddling on a quiet lake, and then bit the inside of her lip as punishment.

    Dave shook his head in amazement. “He was great. We cruised around the houseboats moored there, and he started conversations with anyone out on their decks. It must be that salesman thing, being able to talk to anyone. One lady gave us coffee and muffins.”

    His face reddened, and Susan wondered if there was more to the story. Maybe the woman had handed him a Styrofoam cup with her phone number written on it.

    “Anyway, Susan, I hope you’ll think of me as a friend. If you run into any trouble, or need help dealing with the big egos at ESS, come talk to me.”

    “Thank you. I will.” She knew she was beaming at him, but she couldn’t help it. Now she had the perfect excuse to wander into his office for a chat.

    A petite, black haired waitress came to the table to take their order. They both ordered the lunch special with hot tea. The woman asked Susan how spicy she wanted her lunch to be, and Susan asked for three stars.

    Before Dave could say anything, the waitress smiled warmly and waved a hand at him. “Five star, very hot, how could I forget?”

    The restaurant was filling up fast, and she hurried away with their order.

    “I come here a lot.”

    “Really? I never would have guessed.”

    He grinned and leaned back against the vinyl padded booth seat. “The food is great, it’s close to work and I hate eating at my desk.”

    Balancing a round tray on one hand, a young man carefully unloaded teacups, Jasmine teabags and a pot of hot water onto their table.

    Susan nodded her thanks and leaned forward, putting her elbows on the table. “It’s nice to know it’s okay to leave the building for lunch. Some places I’ve worked, that would be a sign of disloyalty.”

    He nodded vigorously. “It’s a culture thing. The company thinks it’s better if we all get out at lunch, decompress, rejuvenate, whatever. A bunch of people walk a two mile loop around the park every day.” He crossed his arms. “Of course, nobody goes home at five o’clock.”

    Or seven o’clock, Susan thought. When she’d finally left last night, the parking lot wasn’t empty. She unwrapped her teabag and poured the steaming water over it. No way was she going to complain, though. Long hours were part of the package, and with any luck her stock options would pay off big.

    Their food arrived, and Susan dug in. The garlic chicken was delicious and just spicy enough to be interesting.

    After a few bites, he asked, “Do you like it?”

    Her mouth full, Susan just nodded enthusiastically. She could understand why he liked to have lunch here often.

    “I’m glad, because Lucky is really happy with her new hardware.”

    He had to mean the litter box again. The way he played with words charmed her. She swallowed. “You know, I’m amazed that you have a cat living in your department. How did that happen?”

    He grinned. “Lucky started working for me about two years ago. Janet and I were here having lunch, and I was pitching her my plan for upgrading our internal network.”

    “Who’s Janet?”

    His grin widened. “Our president. Janet Morrison. You haven’t met her yet?”

    Susan shook her head.

    “You’ll like her. She’s a powerhouse. Janet gets what Janet wants.”

    The admiration in his voice pulled Susan in two directions. She liked that he wasn’t threatened by powerful women, but she worried that he was involved with Janet.

    “So how does Lucky fit into this story?”

    Dave pointed over his shoulder toward the door to the kitchen. “All of a sudden, there was this big commotion back there. When Penny, that’s our waitress--and part owner, by the way--brought us our bill, we asked what was going on. She said one of the dishwashers found a kitten in the dumpster out back.”

    “Someone threw her away?” The idea horrified her.

    Dave shrugged. “She was a little wild. Maybe she just got separated from the rest of the family. We got one look at that little face and we had to keep her. Neither one of us could have a cat at home. Janet’s husband is allergic, and there are dogs were I live, so we just brought her back to work.”

    So the much-admired president was married. Susan glanced at Dave’s large, square hands. He didn’t wear a wedding ring.

    “The property management company didn’t complain?”

    “The lease doesn’t specifically disallow cats, so Janet let me have her.” He shrugged. “She worked it out with them.”

    Susan looked down, surprised to see that she’d cleaned her plate while they were talking. “I think I’m going to like ESS. You have to go out to lunch, and you get to pet a cat. The only really weird thing so far is that I’m not really clear who I report to. Mark is the lead writer, but I take orders from Tom and Phil.”

    “Engineering has all the power in this company. You and I are just lowly support people.” He said it with such good humor she laughed.

    “I’m used to it. My dad was an engineer.” Something made her plunge recklessly into personal waters. “I was supposed to be an engineer, too. But I hated it. After my sophomore year, I transferred to the English department.”

    He held a hand out over the table for her to shake. “Join the club!” His handshake was vigorous and congratulatory. “Not only was I supposed to be an engineer, but I actually graduated with a BS in Computer Science from the University of Washington.”

    Before she could ask why he wasn’t writing code, Dave looked at the pager he’d unclipped from his belt.

    “I have to get back to work. Are you ready?”

    Outside the restaurant, the streets were wet and the air full of a heavy mist. They walked quickly across the street and cut through the parking lot toward the front door to the ESS offices.

    The pager and cell phone on Dave’s belt made Susan daydream about high-tech lumberjacks out in the woods using GPS devices to determine if they were chopping down the right tree.

    She let her smile widen to match her mood. She’d had a great time at lunch.

    “You know, you’re the only person who hasn’t asked me if I know what happened to my predecessor.”

    His face froze. With everyone so eager to dish the dirt about Rebecca, Susan had forgotten that she had been a real person with real friends. Patty had warned her that Dave had been one of them.

    “Hey, Dave, I’m sorry if--”

    He shook his head and held up a hand almost as if warding off any questions. As they approached the glass doors, he kept himself half a stride ahead of her. No more warm feelings, no more witty banter. She’d really put her foot in it this time. Susan made a mental note to slap herself in the head at her earliest possible convenience.

    Susan settled down at the conference table in the library with all her review copies of the Price Tag Designer manual. She was making a list of the questions she needed to ask each reviewer. The tough part would be finding these people. She had yet to meet Darrell White, Ken Chan and Elaine Howard.

    “Hey, Susan.” Patty leaned on the end of the bookshelf with her arms crossed. “I looked for you at lunchtime, but you were gone.”

    Susan marked the page she’d been looking at with a scrap of paper. Patty sounded casual, but there was a gleam of interest in her eyes that made Susan uncomfortable. The woman probably knew exactly what she had done for lunch, and the sneak was fishing for details. It had been foolish to go to lunch alone with the best looking guy in the company on her second day. In a small company like ESS, people were bound to notice.

    “Yes, I went across the street with the guy who manages the IT department. He’s an old friend of one of my housemates.” Susan covered her mouth as if stifling a yawn. “He told me all about the new microwave satellite communications system he’s planning to implement.”

    Patty smirked, and Susan felt bad. She’d had a great time talking to Dave, and it wasn’t right to make him out to be a bore just to keep Patty off her trail.

    Patty reached up to push a strand of hair out of her eyes, and Susan noticed that she was wearing beige wrist braces on both hands.

    “Hey, do you have carpal tunnel?”

    Patty held both arms out and frowned at them. “The doctor isn’t sure yet. But I end up icing my wrists or wearing these things every afternoon to get rid of the pain.”

    “That’s too bad.” Susan had known a few people whose careers had been ended by carpal tunnel syndrome.

    Patty nodded, looking brave. “It came out of nowhere.” She pulled on one of the Velcro straps that held the brace in place. The crisp ripping sound was surprisingly loud. She patted the strap back into place and wiggled her fingers to test the fit.

    Susan looked back down at her review copy and pretended to become engrossed in it. She hoped Patty would take the hint that she was busy and just wander away.

    “So who’s your housemate Dave knows?”

    God, this woman was nosy. “Roger Walker. He’s in sales.”

    “You live with a guy?” The question sounded casual, but the gleam was back.

    “It’s okay,” Susan lied smoothly. “We’re engaged.”

    Patty’s eyes flicked to Susan’s left hand, no doubt checking for a diamond. Susan began composing another lie about the ring being sent off for cleaning, ignoring the nagging feeling that a stupid story like this could come back to haunt her. What if Dave heard about it?

    A tall man sauntered by wearing green shorts and a Mariners t-shirt. Patty followed him with her eyes. “Listen, meet me in the lobby at 3:30.” She started after him and called over her shoulder to Susan, “We’re going out for coffee with a couple of people from marketing.”

    Marketing. Her pen dropped to the table. Susan hated marketing. With any luck, none of the marketing people here had ever met the ones from Wolff.

    When she went back to her office this time, Susan found three resumes in her in-basket. They were all for experienced programmers with expertise in SQL and Visual C++. A few typos jumped out at her, but Susan resisted the urge to circle them. Eventually someone would come looking for all these resumes, and they probably wouldn’t want her comments.

    Her computer beeped and displayed a message reminding her to go to Tom’s 3:00 engineering meeting. Susan grabbed a notebook and headed toward the elevator.

    The small conference room was supposed to be the first door to the left when you got off the elevator on the second floor. She found the room easily. Tom was inside, sitting at the head of the table, writing in his notebook. Next to his elbow was a paper towel with a donut on it. From the white powder on his chin, Susan figured he’d already eaten one.

    “Hi, Tom.” Susan sat one chair away from him. It was strange that no one else was there. The meeting was supposed to start in two minutes.

    Tom smiled, but his face looked strained. “We’re waiting for Ken. This is going to be a short meeting.”

    Susan nodded, and Tom went back to his notes and his snack. Susan looked around the room to entertain herself. The walls were marked and scuffed as if fights had broken out in here. The white board had only been half erased, and Susan tried to decipher the notes from the last meeting. She knew enough about C++ programming to see that someone had been teaching a class on releasing memory once it had been used.

    “Sorry I’m late.”

    A short, stocky man came in and shut the door. He was Asian, but he spoke with a completely American accent. He dropped into the chair directly across from Susan without making eye contact with either her or Tom. Instead, he arranged his engineering notebook in front of him and fussed with his mechanical pencil.

    “Well, let’s get started. Ken Chan, I’d like you to meet our new writer, Susan Miles.”

    Ken looked up briefly and nodded in her direction. So this was the guy with the rude review comments. Susan sent him a warm, friendly smile. With a difficult reviewer, it was always better to try friendship and cookies before resorting to harder tactics.

    “Susan, you’ll be working pretty closely with Ken.” Tom wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “You’ve probably heard that I lost my other engineer yesterday. So let’s get down to the important business. We have to hire a replacement ASAP. You both got the resumes, right?”

    Susan nodded. So that’s why she’d been getting those resumes. Ken nodded, too, and pulled the three papers from his notebook. He had made notes on them.

    “No one else in the company has called me with comments. How about you two? Have you ever worked with them? Any comments?”

    Susan shook her head, hiding her embarrassment at not bringing the resumes with her. She should have looked at them more closely. It sounded like everyone in the company got a copy whenever someone came in for an interview.

    Ken launched into his assessment of one candidate, and Tom took notes.

    Susan pretended she was listening, nodding every now and then, trying to look very interested. Everyone in the company must have gotten her resume, she realized. The thought made her uncomfortable. Every single person at ESS didn’t need to know her phone number and address.

    After a few minutes, Ken and Tom finished their discussion, having decided that they liked two of the candidates and were worried that one was overstating his qualifications.

    Tom leaned back in his chair. “They’re all coming in tomorrow, so Ken and I are going to be tied up with interviews all day, Susan.”

    She shrugged, smiling. She certainly didn’t need babysitting.

    He wrote something and ripped the page out of his notebook for her. “Make sure you have access to this network drive, and you can start looking at the online help for the Salmon project.”

    She looked at the scribbled path name, making sure she could read it. “IT can do this for me?”

    “Yeah.” Tom slapped his notebook shut. “Okay, we’re done, people. Let’s get back to work.”

    “Ken, do you have five minutes? I have some questions about your review comments.”

    Ken looked at Tom, who nodded.

    “I guess I have time.”

    “Great. Show me where you sit, and I’ll go get my notes.”

    Instead of taking her to his cubicle, Ken silently accompanied Susan to her office and answered her questions there. He turned out to be very smart once she pinned him down with precise questions about what he didn’t like in the manual. He tended to talk down to her and speak too quickly for her to follow, but she kept on him until she understood what he meant. When he left thirty minutes later, Susan made a mental note to bring him in homemade cookies tomorrow to thank him.

    It was almost four o’clock. She’d forgotten all about going to the coffee shop with Patty and her friends from marketing. Susan sighed, glad she’d avoided the field trip and annoyed that now she had to apologize to Patty. The woman should introduce her to people she needed to know, like other writers and those two reviewers she had to track down. Susan called Patty’s extension and left her a suitably apologetic voicemail message.

    Then she hunkered down and started fixing the problems Ken had explained to her. If any other questions came up, she’d make sure to ask him tomorrow when she gave him the cookies.

    At seven that night, when Susan pushed open the kitchen door, she saw Steph sitting at the kitchen table. The room had the mouthwatering smell of microwave popcorn.

    “Honey, I’m home,” Susan called out as a joke. She dropped into the chair across from her best friend. She wasn’t surprised to find Steph in the kitchen, uninvited. They’d been practically inseparable since the elementary school. Luckily, Chris and Roger didn’t seem to mind that their new roommate came with baggage.

    Steph’s mouth was full, so she just nodded her hello and got Susan a can of Diet Pepsi from the fridge.

    “Are you going to wait for me to come home every night?”

    Steph swallowed and shook her head, sending her red hair bouncing. “You wish. I’m just humoring you because I know the first week is always tough.”

    Susan turned her soda can until the bar code pointed in Steph’s direction. She wanted to show off some of the interesting things she’d learned from The Bar Code Bible.

    “This is a UPC symbol. That stands for Universal Product Code. They’re everywhere, right?” Steph nodded. “Well, IBM invented this type of bar code, and in 1973 it was made the industry standard for grocery stores.”

    Steph smirked and pushed the bag of popcorn to Susan’s side of the table. “And you were afraid this bar code stuff would be boring.”

    “Okay, time for a test. What does UPC stand for?”

    “Universal Product Code.”

    Susan nodded trying to keep the grin off her face. “How about IBM?”

    Steph had to think for a few seconds. “International Business Machines.”

    “Is that your final answer?”

    Steph nodded.

    “Wrong! IBM stands for I’ve Been Moved. Or Internal Bowel Movement. Or my personal favorite, Intercourse Before Marriage.”

    Steph shook her head. “This is why you never get invited to cocktail parties.”

    Susan laughed and then tugged on her best friend’s sleeve. “Come on, Stephanie. It’s St. Paddy’s. Let’s go out somewhere and have a glass of green beer. I promise I won’t talk about work.”

    Steph brightened. “You’re on.”

    Susan remembered that she had to reward Ken for his help. “Then we can come back here and bake some cookies.”



    Chapter 6


     “I hate raisins,” Ken said flatly, looking at the baggy of cookies Susan had handed him.

    “Then you’re in luck,” she said cheerfully. “There are walnuts, M&Ms, chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and peanut butter chips in there, but no raisins.”

    After a couple of beers last night, she and Steph had been in an adventurous mood, straying from the classic chocolate chip recipe Susan had mastered. They’d searched the cupboards, giggling, for anything to throw into the dough. Luckily, there hadn’t been any raisins available.

    “I guess that’s okay then,” he muttered. It was perhaps the least gracious reaction she’d ever gotten for freshly baked cookies.

    Susan held out a printout of the changes she’d made. “Would you--”

    He scowled, putting his hands behind his back. “I helped you yesterday.”

    “You asked for so many changes, I think you ought to see the new draft, to make sure it’s what you expected.”

    “Too busy. Interviews all day.” Ken pivoted and stomped away with the plastic bag dangling from his fingers.

    Susan resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at him. His tune would change once he’d taken his first bite. He’d be begging for things to review just to get more.

    She stuffed her printout into the paper sack that held several more baggies of cookies. Her next stop was the IT department. She had to get access to the files on that network drive Tom had mentioned, and she wanted to make sure Dave wasn’t annoyed with her for bringing up Rebecca so callously yesterday. Nothing smoothed over hurt feelings better than a homebaked treat.

    When she pushed through the swinging double doors, Susan saw Andy sitting at the battered desk, staring at the computer monitor. Lucky was curled up in the plastic in-basket.

    “Hi, Andy.”

    Andy looked up from the screen and grinned. “Susan, my hero!” He nudged the cat, who opened one eye. “Wake up, Lucky. It’s the patron saint of kitty litter.”

    Susan scratched under the cat’s chin, enjoying the warm silky brush of fur.

    Andy took a deep, appreciative breath and exhaled slowly. “Can you smell it?”

    Susan sniffed the air. “Smell what?”

    “Nothing!” His grin was wicked. “Which is exactly how an office is supposed to smell. I can’t thank you enough. It’s changed my life. People actually come visit me now that this place doesn’t stink like cat urine.”

    Susan chuckled. “Then you owe me one.” She handed him a slip of paper from her pocket. “Tom says I need access to this network drive so I can edit the help files for the Salmon project.”

    He pulled a green form out of a desk drawer. “You have to get your lead engineer to sign this before I can set you up.” He shrugged apologetically. “We’re ridiculously security conscious here.”

    Susan heard the doors behind her squeak open, and Andy’s eyes widened. He raised his voice and said formally, “It was my pleasure to help you.”

    Susan turned just as Philip and a tall, thin woman ducked as they came through the double doors. The woman had to be Janet Morrison, the President of ESS, based on the photos Susan had seen of the company officers. She was wearing an impeccable cream business suit and matching heels. It took guts to wear heels when you’re six feet tall.

    Beside her, Philip looked like a street person in his jeans and tie-dyed shirt. At least he wasn’t barefoot. He was wearing his Birkenstocks.

    Janet nodded a greeting to Andy and Susan, then looked around the room. She sniffed the air, raised an eyebrow, and looked at Philip. “I don’t smell anything.”

    He sniffed, too, and agreed with her. He turned to Andy with a suspicious scowl. “How come it doesn’t smell in here?”

    Philip’s voice must have scared Lucky because she jumped off the desk and shot across the room to hide.

    “We took care of the problem.” Everyone turned to see Dave as he came from behind the bookcases. He spoke directly to Janet, and there wasn’t a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “We always take Philip’s complaints seriously.”

    Susan found it hard to take in a breath, hoping he would take the credit. But Dave waved a hand in her direction. “Thanks to Susan Miles, our new technical writer.”

    Everyone looked at Susan, who felt the heat on her face and hoped she wasn’t turning red. What a way to meet the president of her new company. This wasn’t exactly the first impression she wanted to make on this powerful woman executive.

    “Tell me more.” Janet had the air of someone used to being obeyed.

    How could she make this sound like an intelligent business decision?

    “Often it takes a fresh eye to see the simple solution to a problem.” That was a good start. Susan hadn’t spent three years on her high school debating team without learning how to bullshit. She established eye contact with Janet and plunged right in, ignoring the way her heart was pounding.

    “There have been dramatic advances in litter box technology that Dave and Andy were unaware of. So I brought in a new box with a charcoal filter and a cover, and I introduced them to clumping litter. The result is a noticeable decrease in ambient odor.”

    Janet’s smile had widened while Susan spoke, changing her expression from polite interest to real amusement. “Don’t let Larry Whitfield hear you talk like that, or he’ll draft you right out of Tech Pubs and send you on sales calls.” She extended a perfectly manicured hand, and they shook hands. “Welcome aboard. I like people who aren’t afraid to jump into the fray.”

    Susan grinned. She could look forward to working for a woman president who had a sense of humor and didn’t mind mixing it up with the troops.

    Janet turned to Dave. “I don’t get down here nearly often enough, Dave. I know your department is the glue that keeps the whole company together.”

    Dave and Janet exchanged a smile, and Susan wondered how well Dave knew her. They seemed awfully friendly. Maybe that was why Philip had to drag the president down here. He didn’t dare hassle Dave directly. Philip’s face seemed to have frozen in a pleasant expression that definitely did not reach his eyes.

    Janet looked at her watch. “I don’t really have time for this type of thing, but we have some very important visitors coming in next week and I didn’t want there to be anything about our facility that would give them the wrong impression. I’m glad you brought this to my attention, Philip,” she nodded at Susan, “and I’m glad you’ve already solved the problem for me.”

    As they turned to leave, Philip held one of the doors open for Janet. She ignored him, pushing the other door open for herself and brushing past him. He hurried after her, leaving both doors swinging.

    Dave sat heavily on a corner of the desk and grinned at Susan. “Elvis has left the building.”

    She smiled back at him, relieved that he wasn’t holding a grudge.

    Andy rocked his chair back to balance on the back two legs. “Important visitors,” he mused. “What do you think she meant by that?”

    Susan shrugged. “New customers? Some big contract?”

    Andy snorted. “We hate our customers. Just look at the manuals we make them read.”

    Before Susan could retaliate, Dave cut in. “What if they’re financial analysts? Hot shots from some brokerage firm that’s handling our IPO?”

    Andy’s chair banged back down onto all four legs. “We’re finally going public?” He whistled. “I hope so.”

    ESS would probably keep news of the impending IPO a secret, even from employees, until the terms were settled. Susan wondered how many stock options these two had. It would be four years before she was fully vested, so Dave’s speculation wasn’t anything to get excited over. “I guess that explains why Philip was so concerned about the litter box smell.”

    Dave slanted her a skeptical look. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

    “He’s been dying for a reason to get rid of Lucky,” Andy explained. “But you saved her!”

    Susan bowed. “I am a person with many talents.” She pulled two bags of cookies from her sack and handed them over.

    The guys tore open the bags with groans of delight. Ken’s reaction had clearly been an aberration.

    As she pushed through the doors, she heard Andy call, “See you later, Suzie Homemaker.”

    Late that afternoon, Alice Geiser leaned against the wall of her software lab. All her people were accounted for, plus a couple of engineers and that new writer, Susan Miles. The low burr of conversation was drowned out by the constant clicking of keyboards. Her eyes itched. She really shouldn’t have picked up Lucky, but that feline was hard to resist. She pulled a strip of scotch tape from the dispenser and dabbed at her shirt. Orange and brown cat hairs stuck to the tape. It was a low-tech, but highly effective, solution.

    Philip had it in for the cat because it was a way to shake up a lot of people all at once. This time, he had almost succeeded in getting rid of Lucky. According to the current buzz in the coffee room, Susan had come in like the cavalry and saved the day with a new litter box. Now that IT didn’t stink, there was no way Philip could convince Janet to ban the cat from the building.

    Susan probably had no idea she was now at the top of Philip’s shit list. She hadn’t been around long enough to learn that at ESS, no good deed goes unpunished. Alice didn’t know her well enough to tell her this, but she could make her life a little easier in the meantime.

    Susan was hunched over a computer against the back wall. It was the oldest, slowest PC in the lab. Alice had assigned her that machine because she was just a writer. To her credit, Susan hadn’t complained.

    Alice scanned the list of software testing assignments on the white board. She couldn’t move anyone who was running important tests. Bingo. One of the interns, Shawn, was testing the user interface for button placement. That was cosmetic stuff, nothing critical, and certainly nothing that required him to be on such a fast PC.

    Shawn sat at the table right in front of her. He slumped in his chair as if he were so bored he could barely stay awake. The only thing that moved was his right hand on the mouse. When she sat down next to him, he jerked upright, turned bright red, and nodded a lot while she outlined his new instructions. She left him gathering up his notes and logging off the PC.

    Alice headed over to Susan. Her hard drive was making low clunking and whirring sounds. Status messages inched across the screen.

    Susan must have heard her approach, because she turned around with a smile. “Hey, Alice.”

    That was the nice thing about Susan: she was always in a good mood. Of course, she had only been here three days, so this had to be her best behavior. Something made Alice think Susan would still be cheerful six months from now--unless Philip got to her.

    “I’m sorry to bother you, but I need to commandeer this machine. Shawn is about to start some tests so we can certify our backward compatibility.”

    “Yeah?” Susan’s smile slipped. Clearly, she assumed she was being kicked out of the lab. That wasn’t what Alice had intended to convey, and she hurried to explain herself.

    “I’d like you to swap machines with him. He’s been working on one of our newer PCs, a whole heck of a lot faster than this old thing.”

    Now she had Susan’s attention. “You’re kidding.”

    Alice shook her head. “Nope.” She winked. “I hope it’s not too inconvenient to move.”


    Chapter 7


    Susan shuffled through the stack of Price Tag Designer reviews, trying to decide whose comments to work on next. This was tedious work, making a million small annoying changes to someone else’s manual. Susan shook herself mentally. This user’s guide wasn’t someone else’s manual any more. It was her project, and it was also one of her first chances to make a good impression here.

    Well, if it really was her project now, she’d better get it more organized. First of all, this unruly stack of manuals had to go. The way Susan liked to work was to dismantle the review copies, keeping only the pages that people had written on. She would put those pages into a three-ring binder and throw away the rest.

    The only reason she hadn’t done so already was that she’d been thinking this was Rebecca’s stuff. But it was her stuff now, and she’d better get down to work.

    Each review copy had been bound with black plastic comb binding. Susan grabbed the end of one comb and pulled it free. The plastic prongs popped one by one off of the manual with distinct snaps. She set the comb aside.

    She repeated the process with all twelve review copies, until she had a stack of paper and a pile of combs.

    Since the book covers were made of bright orange card stock and had each reviewer’s name on them, they would make excellent section dividers in the binder. Susan paged through each copy of the book. If a page had comments, she kept it. If a page hadn’t been written on, she let it drop into her paper recycling box.

    When she was done, her recycling box was full and the stack of paper on her desk was much smaller. Susan found herself smiling at her own efficiency.

    She scanned the bookshelf over her desk for an empty binder and chose a light blue one with the ESS logo on the front. Before she could put the remaining pages into the binder, she’d have to punch holes into them. The comb binding used many small rectangular holes along the edge of the paper.

    The black three-hole punch could only handle three pages at a time, so it was slow work getting the pages into the binder.

    When the room suddenly became darker, Susan looked up. Ken Chan was standing in her doorway, blocking the bright light from the hallway.

    “Hi, Ken.”

    “Tom asked me to bring you this scanner.” He stepped into the office and thrust a gray plastic device at her. It looked like a rectangular box mounted on a pistol grip with a bright yellow trigger.

    She accepted it. “Thanks.”

    He was wearing all black, from his t-shirt to his sneakers. He dropped a softcover textbook on her desk.

    “Here’s the manual.” His tone gave Susan the impression he thought only morons needed documentation. Susan just smiled at him. Too bad he hadn’t been the one to quit. That Brian guy had to be nicer than this.

    “Hey, Ken, what kind of deal did you have going with Rebecca?”

    His eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

    “I mean for reviewing her work. The way I like to do things, you give me some changes, I write them up, and then I show you the new version. It sounds like a lot of work, but believe me, it’s easier on everyone. That way, when I put the book out for a formal review, there are no surprises.”

    She held up the same printout she’d tried to give him yesterday, hoping he’d take it this time.

    He scowled down at it instead. “What do you mean, surprises?”

    “Things you never expected to see. Mistakes.” Gosh, he spoke perfect English. What was the problem?

    Ken grabbed the printout and used it to point at the scattered pile of black comb bindings on her desk. “You going to throw those in the garbage?”

    She nodded, wondering if he was criticizing her for having a messy desk.

    “I’ll recycle them for you.” He scooped them up and practically ran out of her office.

    Susan leaned back in her chair, nonplussed. Her first impressions of Ken Chan were confusing. He was uncooperative and socially inept, but interested in the environment. If she worked with him long enough, she’d eventually figure out what made him tick.

    She looked at the bar code scanner and smiled. She had a new toy to play with.


    Chapter 8


    The weatherman had predicted sunshine all morning, with scattered clouds and light rain in the afternoon. Susan couldn’t resist the sun, so she abandoned her closet to sit outside on the low stone wall by the front door, reading Mark Eastman’s copy of The Bar Code Bible.

    It was almost ten, but she still got to say good morning to more than a few people straggling in. This company was like many she’d worked at. You could pretty much come in as late as you wanted, but you still had to put in a regular ten-hour day.

    The cold from the stone wall sent unpleasant chills up her spine, so Susan pulled off her sweatshirt and sat on it. She might be able to stay outside for another half hour. Anything was preferable to returning to her dark, stuffy closet.

    She was fascinated by the chapter that explained how manufacturing companies could use bar code to track a product as it traveled down the assembly line. The book was well written, with great line drawings and photos. Susan wanted to shake Patty for not giving her a copy.

    “Hey, Susan, good morning.”

    Susan looked up from her book to wave hello to Alice, who looked very cheerful. Her straight brown hair was pulled back with sparkly dragonfly barrettes, and she actually had some eye makeup on.

    “Don’t tell me my staff kicked you out of the lab.” Alice put her black leather briefcase on the ground and crossed her arms, pretending to be angry.

    Susan shook her head, ready to go along with the joke. “No, no, they asked me to stay. But with all the noise they were making, I just couldn’t get anything done. When the cat’s away…”

    “Well, the cat’s back.” Alice grinned. “This is your first Friday, right?”

    Susan nodded. So much had happened that she couldn’t believe she’d only been here for five days.

    “Make sure you go to the lunch room at 3 o’clock. We’re having birthday cake.”

    “Whose birthday is it?”

    “Mine.” Alice beamed. “That’s why I’m late. I slept in to celebrate. Anyway, please come. It’ll be fun. We do this every Friday for everyone who had a birthday that week.”

    “Writers have to stick together.” Over the years, this had become Susan’s work motto.

    Patty sniffed. “I’d rather stand alone against engineering than ask any of these guys to back me up. But it’s important that you at least know who they are.”

    She could probably flirt her way through any argument with an engineer. Other writers would only get in her way, Susan decided.

    They were walking toward the four connected cubicles where Mark, Patty, and the other two tech writers sat.

    “We hardly ever have staff meetings, so Mark asked me to introduce you to Ed and Ted.”

    Susan must have made a face because Patty grinned. “I know, they sound like a clown act. Ed’s been here for three years, and Ted started about six months ago. But they kind of look the same. It causes no end of confusion.”

    They stopped in front of a cube and looked in. The desk was tidy, and the computer monitor was black except for the screen saver, a yellow tennis ball bouncing randomly around the screen.

    “Let’s try Ted, then,” Patty suggested. They stepped a few feet over at the next doorway. The guy sitting at the computer stopped typing and turned to look at them. He got up. He was trim, forty-ish, and about an inch shorter than Susan. Dark circles under his eyes gave him a tired look.

    “This is Susan Miles, the writer we just hired. You’re finally not the new guy anymore, Ted.”

    He ignored the jab and shook Susan’s hand. “I should have gone down and introduced myself to you this week. Welcome to ESS. Glad you’re here, really glad. There’s an awful lot of work to be done.”

    “While you’re chatting, I’ll see if I can find Ed.” Patty slipped out of the cube.

    Ted watched her go, then leaned close to Susan and whispered, “Do you think Web-Tech is looking for someone to replace you?”

    Surprised at his boldness, Susan shook her head. “The company’s going under. I heard they’re working out of the CEO’s garage now.”

    “Rats!” He rubbed a hand across his jaw. His nails were bitten to the quick. “Did you use a recruiter? Did you like her?”

    “Him. Norm Fielding. He’s great, I’ve used him before. I could email you his phone number--”

    “No! That’s not safe.”

    He thought someone monitored his email? Norm wasn’t going to appreciate this kind of referral. “Okay,” she said soothingly. “What if I seal his business card in an envelope and leave it on your chair?”

    “That’s a good idea.” He smiled. “Don’t get the wrong impression. ESS is a good company. I’m just overwhelmed with all this work.”

    “Tell me about it,” Patty whined from the doorway. “I just found out I have to come in this weekend.”

    She looked annoyed but in a completely self-involved way that made Susan think Patty hadn’t heard what they were talking about.

    Ted didn’t look concerned. “Did you find Ed?”

    Patty shook her head.

    “He’s been spending a lot of time in the Pit with his engineers,” Ted explained.

    Susan thought about Ed’s tidy little cube, sitting up here empty most of the time. Why couldn’t they have put her in it? Then she looked at Patty and Ted. Did she really want to sit with these two? Definitely not. She was better off in the dungeon with Philip and Martha.

    Some software companies bring in beer on Friday afternoons, but insurance companies frown on the practice. ESS must have decided it was better to send its employees home on a sugar high, which doesn’t register on a breathalyzer test.

    There were already a lot of people in the coffee room when Susan arrived. A couple of the test engineers she recognized from Alice’s software lab nodded hello to her from across the room. Dave wasn’t there yet. The way he’d wolfed down her cookies on Wednesday, she was sure he wouldn’t pass up a chance for birthday cake.

    Susan found herself wedged against the counter by the coffee maker as more people crowded in. A couple of fresh pots were brewing, and Susan made sure she didn’t lean against the hot machine. She also tried not to think about the camera pointing at her from the top of the fridge, reassuring herself that since so many people had come to the party, there was probably no one watching the coffee cam video stream.

    Alice stood behind one of the tables with a large sheet cake on it. One of the test engineers leaned over the cake, doing something to make Alice laugh loudly and exclaim, “Hey, I’m twenty-one again!”

    When he stepped out of the way, Susan saw that he’d stuck four candles, shaped like a zero, an X, a two, and a one, into the frosting. Susan grinned. Only a geek would think of using hexadecimal numbers on a birthday cake. 0x21 was hex for--she did the math quickly in her head, two times sixteen plus one--thirty-three. Alice was only five years older than she was, and she was already the head of her department. Would Susan be a manager in six years? Did she even want to be?

    Martha lit the candles and everyone started singing Happy Birthday enthusiastically, even though a lot of people were way off key. Susan sang along, putting the questions about her curious lack of ambition out of her mind.

    Alice blew out the candles. A cheer went up, and a deep voice demanded, “Cut the cake!”

    Alice raised her empty hands. “As usual, upper management has not provided me with the tools I need to do my job.”

    Laughter rippled through the room. Alice really knew how to work a crowd. Susan had thought Alice was kind of plain and serious, but now she was glowing. Her eyes sparkled like her dragonfly barrettes, and her smile was infectious. It was clear she enjoyed being the center of attention.

    The stout, motherly woman next to Susan patted her arm. “There are some knives in the drawer right behind you, honey.”

    Susan turned and pulled the drawer open. Several large sharp knives rattled around with a collection of plastic spoons, spatulas, coffee scoops, and can openers. These people were ready for anything.

    Susan picked out the cleanest-looking chef’s knife and handed it to the woman, who raised it over her head and handed it to the next person in the crowd. The wood-handled knife passed delicately from person to person, with its sharp tip pointed toward the ceiling, until it reached Alice.

    Alice started cutting the cake and Martha dumped the slices onto paper plates. The plates were handed out through the crowd. The noise level dipped as people stepped into the hallway to eat their cake.

    The woman next to Susan patted her arm again. “My name is Betty. I’m Janet’s secretary.”

    She had to mean Janet Morrison, the company president. Susan handed her a slice of chocolate cake, and they moved away from the coffee maker so people could fill their mugs.

    “I’m Susan Miles. I just started this week.” She took a bite of cake. “Are these birthday parties always this crowded?”

    “Well, everybody likes Alice because she makes sure we ship a quality product.” A shadow passed over Betty’s face. “But the last few Fridays have been sort of low key. Has anyone told you we had a tragic loss? In the writing department?”

    Susan nodded.

    Betty looked around the room and sighed. “It’s only been a couple of weeks, but I suppose we’re starting to put it behind us.”

    Alice slid onto the table where Susan was working. Her feet didn’t touch the floor, and she swung her legs back and forth like a kid. The software lab had emptied out just after six o’clock, so maybe she didn’t feel like she had to act like a manager now that her people were gone. Susan rolled her chair back. If Alice wanted to hang out and chat, Susan was more than happy to oblige. She needed friends here, and she couldn’t ask for a better one, especially since Alice was a manager.

    “Hey, how was your first week?”

    After hours on a Friday night, there was no reason to pretend she loved work. She paraphrased one of her favorite Far Side cartoons. “My brain is full and I want to go home.”

    Alice nodded, and the florescent lights made her barrettes sparkle. “You should go, then. Just send out some email before you leave.” She winked. “It can’t hurt to advertise.”

    Susan’s eyebrows shot up. She made it a habit to shamelessly send out email whenever she worked overtime. Email was automatically dated and time-stamped, which made it a great way to show off how late she worked. Clearly, she and Alice were kindred souls.

    “You like ESS so far?” There was a worried note in Alice’s voice, as if she figured after a week of peering under this particular rock, Susan might be ready to call it quits.

    ESS was paying her too much to let a few strange coworkers make her quit. Susan liked Alice, but she didn’t know her well enough to let on how she felt about Patty, Philip, and Ken. Susan tried to think of something diplomatic and vague to say.

    “There are a lot of interesting personalities here.”

    Alice nodded thoughtfully.

    The computer beeped and Susan leaned in to read the warning messages. There were some unresolved links in her help file. She could fix those pretty easily.

    “If anyone gives you a hard time, let me know.” Alice sounded like a big brother offering to beat up the neighborhood bully for her.

    Susan grinned at her. “Thanks. Dave made me the same offer, too. Makes me wonder what kind of trouble you two think I could get into.”

    “Dave’s good people.”

    “He knows one of my roommates.”

    Alice looked pointedly at Susan’s left hand. “I heard you’re engaged, but you don’t wear a ring. Is it a secret?”

    Susan laughed. It sure didn’t take long for a story to spread around this company.

    “No, I’m not engaged.” She decided to go out on a limb with Alice. “I made up the whole story because Patty was drilling me for info.”

    Alice shook her head. “She’s a snoop. I don’t think anything happens here without her knowing about it.”

    “Maybe that’ll come in useful. She’s my official buddy.” Susan let a hint of her annoyance show, making Alice chuckle.

    “Did she tell you anything about the writer you replaced?” Alice tilted her head to one side and stared off into the distance as if she were trying to picture the woman’s face in her mind.

    “A little, but it wasn’t very flattering.”

    “That figures.” Alice sighed. “Rebecca spent a lot of time up here. She couldn’t stand that little office downstairs.”

    Susan knew how that felt.

    “Want to see a picture of her?”

    It was a simple question, but it took Susan by surprise. She nodded quickly.

    Alice slid off the table. “Come on.”

    Susan followed her out of the software lab, anxious to see a photograph of the dead woman. A large bulletin board dominated the wall across from the software lab. Susan had passed by it a couple of times already, but she hadn’t stopped to look at it because she’d been so determined to look busy.

    Alice tapped a color 8-by-10 picture in the middle of the board. “She’s in this one, in the back row on the right. But I know there are better shots of her.”

    Susan leaned in to study the picture. It was a group shot of everyone in the company standing under a tree. There was a woman in the last row on the right. Only half of her face showed. She was short enough to have been in the front, but instead she was tucked at the end of the back row. That was odd. Her hair was long and black, and she wore a black baggy sweater and jeans. Her face was very pale and serious. Susan would have bet money that she had stepped behind the guy next to her at the last minute.

    “Here she is.”

    Susan looked. Alice was pointing at a regular sized snapshot. Rebecca had been caught with her mouth wide open and her dark brown eyes glazed over. Her black hair was wild in the air around her shoulders, as if she was falling. Her face, so white in that first picture, was flushed red. She looked wasted. Susan felt repulsed. It seemed very unprofessional to get falling down drunk with your coworkers. That was something you were supposed to get out of your system in college.

    “When we shipped AT 4.0 last fall, the company sent the whole team down to the San Francisco for a Jimmy Buffett concert as a reward.”

    That sounded like an amazing reward for shipping a product, but Susan was more interested in Rebecca’s picture. There were other photos of ESS people in Hawaiian shirts. But no one looked as drunk as Rebecca, even though they were all holding plastic cups. Andy had been right when he said she’d had a drinking problem.

    There was a second picture of Rebecca lying in a heap of blankets as if she had passed out. She was surrounded by feet and legs. It looked like she was being ignored. Susan felt embarrassed for this person she’d never met. How awful to make a fool of yourself and then have it advertised for all time on the company bulletin board.

    “Didn’t she mind having these pictures up here?”

    Alice sounded sad. “It must have bothered her, but she didn’t take them down.”

    Susan suddenly felt curious about Rebecca. Why had she left these pictures up here for everyone to look at day after day?

    Her fall down the stairs was a tragedy. Maybe there had been some kind of warning, some habitual clumsiness or carelessness that, in one terrible moment, turned fatal. That would make the whole accident seem easier to live with.

    “So what was she like?”

    “I liked her. She always refilled the paper tray on my laser printer over there, and she didn’t bother my people with too many questions.”


    Chapter 9


    On Saturday morning, the sun rose bright in a remarkably cloudless sky, sending tendrils of steam from the wood plank fences. Although it was late March, it felt like early summer. Birds sang, children yelled, and a lawn mower roared into life. The racket finally woke Susan up at eleven.

    She dragged herself out of bed, pulled on her pink cotton bathrobe over her nightshirt, and headed downstairs. Maybe someone had left her some coffee.

    “Good morning,” Stephanie chirped when Susan entered the kitchen.

    Susan mumbled a greeting on her way to the coffee maker. One of the guys must have let Steph in. Ever since she’d started fighting with her current live-in boyfriend, Steph had been spending almost all her time here. Pretty soon the guys were going to ask for rent.

    Roger’s latest acquisition, a large black coffee machine, was spitting hot coffee into its glass pot and huffing clouds of steam into the air. Susan leaned against the counter to wait. The kitchen was flooded with bright sunshine, and her eyes watered, trying to adjust to the light. It was hardly ever this sunny until August.

    “I got here before nine. Bill is supposed to move the rest of his stuff out before lunch.” Steph made a face. “I definitely didn’t want to be home for that, so I ran over to see if you have anything good planned.”

    Susan nodded sympathetically at Steph, who was sprawled in a chair at the table. She wore bright yellow nylon running shorts and a white t-shirt, and her red hair was pulled back in a pony tail. She really had run over, a four-mile trip that barely made her break a sweat. Susan suddenly felt pale and out of shape. Sometime this weekend, she ought to drive out to Issaquah and hike up Tiger Mountain.

    The coffee maker spat a little more coffee, gurgled, and shut itself off. She busied herself pouring the correct ratio of milk and coffee into her mug. Finally, she sipped the coffee. It was a strong, almost bitter, dark roast. Susan wondered if sugar would help deaden the taste.

    “I cleaned the bathrooms while I was waiting.”

    That explained the faint pine smell that clung to Steph.

    “Thanks. Were they gross?”

    Steph shook her head, but Susan wondered. Roger and Chris were excellent roommates except for their bathroom habits. Hiring Steph to disinfect every week was the only way to keep the peace.

    “Thanks for resisting the urge to wake me up.”

    Steph laughed. “Are you kidding? I’ve been trying to wake you up for an hour. I blasted the TV for awhile, but that didn’t work, so I finally went next door and goaded your neighbor into mowing her lawn.”

    “You didn’t.” Susan felt wide awake now, and she searched Steph’s face for a sign that she was kidding.

    “I did. I started telling her about all the cases of Lyme disease that have been reported so far this spring. Then I mentioned that tall grass attracts deer ticks...”

    Susan gaped at her, then looked out the window to see Andrea Mitchell mowing her lawn.

    “She hustled the kids into the house and had the lawn mower fired up in four minutes flat.”

    They laughed. Susan refilled her mug, and they decided to sit in the living room so they didn’t have to watch Andrea mow the whole quarter acre. Susan settled in an armchair and Steph plopped down on the couch.

    “What’s this?” Steph picked up the scanner Susan had brought home from work. “Did an alien drop by and forget his ray gun?”

    She aimed the scanner at Susan, who automatically raised her arms in surrender. In Steph’s hands, it did look more like a weapon than a piece of industrial hardware.

    “That’s a bar code scanner. I have to figure out how it works.”

    “You can put your arms down if you show me how it works.”

    Susan dropped her arms. “Okay, but we have to start with a safety lesson.”

    She took the scanner and turned it over to show Steph a window on the bottom of the device. “Once we turn this thing on, you have to make sure you don’t look at this window. This is where the laser light comes out, and you can hurt your eyes that way.”

    Steph nodded.

    Susan turned the scanner back over and held it in the normal position by the pistol grip. “This screen on the top panel displays the decoded bar codes.” She pushed a button to turn on the scanner, and the screen glowed green.

    “See the red dots?” Two red dots of light were projected from the scanner onto the coffee table. “You hold the scanner over a bar code and move it up or down until the two red dots converge. At that point, the code is in focus and you pull the trigger to read it.”

    To demonstrate, Susan focused the scanner on the bar code on the cover of a PC Week magazine and pulled the trigger. The scanner beeped and displayed a string of numbers in the screen.

    She handed the scanner to Steph and opened Rebecca Cafferty’s binder, which contained almost twenty pages of different bar codes that this scanner could read.

    Susan curled back up in the chair and sipped the rest of her coffee with her eyes shut. The only noise in the room was the muffled roar of her neighbor’s lawn mower and the cheerful beeps from the scanner. Bar code wasn’t the most exciting technology, but ESS offered her a chance to get back on track financially.

    “Hey, look at this.” Steph sounded worried.

    Susan sat up immediately. “What?” The scanner retailed for almost two thousand dollars. She didn’t want to bring it back broken.

    Steph handed her the scanner. The small screen was filled with text, and Susan had to blink her eyes a couple of times before she could read the letters: I HOPE YOU DROP DEAD.

    Susan’s breath caught in her throat. Then she realized that Steph had to be pulling her leg. “All right, how’d you do it?”

    Her friend raised both hands. “Hey, don’t look at me.” She tapped the open page of the binder. “I scanned this thing, and bingo, nasty message.”

    She had pointed at a square inch block of black and white dots that looked more like a drawing of an art deco kitchen tile than a bar code. Susan aimed the red dots on the code and pulled the trigger. The same message appeared.

    “Yikes.” Susan slumped back into her chair with the scanner in her lap. “Are they all like that?”

    Steph shook her head. “Most of the bar codes gave me numbers and company names, nothing spectacular. Only the last couple had weird messages.” She reached for the binder and turned back a few pages. “I think it started here.”

    Susan scanned the UPC symbol and IGNORANT BITCH appeared on the screen. She scanned the bar codes on the next two pages and found EVERYONE HATES WORKING WITH YOU and YOURE GOING TO BE SORRY IF YOU DONT STOP.

    The pages that had disturbing messages on them had a date and time written in the upper right corner. All the other pages had handwritten notes that identified the name of the bar code symbology and a description of the contents. It looked as though the weird bar codes didn’t really belong in the binder.

    “So have you ticked off someone at this new company?” Steph hugged a green throw pillow to her chest.

    “What do you mean? Of course not. I’ve been the nicest person.”

    “Then what the heck is this?”

    “These messages aren’t for me. This isn’t even my notebook. It belonged to the person who held my position before me. I found it on her bookshelf.”

    “So someone hated her? Maybe that’s why she left the company.”

    Susan sighed. She wasn’t going to be able to keep this secret any more. “This person, Rebecca Cafferty, she died. That’s why there was an opening at ESS.”

    “She died? You took over a job for a dead person?”

    “Yes. It didn’t seem that important…” She let her voice trail off. She shouldn’t lie to her best friend. She hadn’t mentioned it because she’d known superstitious Steph would consider it bad luck.

    Steph glared at her, and Susan considered telling her that she’d had to walk under a ladder every day to get into her new office. But Steph didn’t seem to be ready to be teased.

    “How did she die?”

    Susan wished she hadn’t asked. There was no way to sugarcoat the answer. “She fell down the stairs late one night at work.”

    “No kidding?” Two red spots appeared on Steph’s cheeks. “I guess whoever wanted her to drop dead wasn’t fooling around.”

    Susan crossed her arms. “Her fall had nothing to do with these messages. I heard she was high. The obvious assumption is that she just lost her balance.”

    They sat staring at each other until Steph broke the silence. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me any of this.” She sounded hurt.

    “I’m sorry.”

    Steph scowled at her. “What kind of drugs are we talking about here?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Well, we’ve both been high, and neither one of us fell down any stairs.”

    They had smoked pot a couple of times in high school, which seemed like innocent experimentation compared to Rebecca’s brazen drug use on the job.

    “That was a long time ago, Steph.”

    “It doesn’t matter. You have to go to the police.”

    “Why? To turn myself in for something stupid I did ten years ago?”

    Steph spelled it out for her patiently. “You have to show them these threatening notes. If they’d seen them, you can bet there would have been more of an investigation.”

    “No way! There’s no way I’m running to the police with a few impolite bar codes.” She took a deep breath to steady herself. “Really Steph, for all we know this was a stupid prank that everyone was in on. I’d look like a complete fool if I went to the police. It would ruin my chances at ESS, that’s for sure.”

    “But what if it wasn’t a joke? What if someone was threatening her?”

    “It still probably has nothing to do with her death.” Even as she said the words, she didn’t believe them. Her heart was pounding and she had butterflies in her stomach. She turned off the scanner and gently placed it on the coffee table.

    “You’re kidding yourself.”

    “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll ask around, see what I can come up with. If I turn up anything suspicious, then I’ll race you to the police. I want to know who wrote these threats. I just started working for this company. I’d hate to think there’s a crazy person there.”

    “There are crazy people everywhere. My policy is to stay out of their way.”

    Susan ignored her cautious friend. After all, whoever wrote the messages had a beef with Rebecca, not with her. She couldn’t get into any trouble just by asking questions.

    “I’ve made a commitment to this company. I want to know what kind of people I’m working with.”

    “You want to keep your great new salary.” Steph threw up her hands. “Okay. You win. How about if I go to the library? I’ll look for the obituary and see if anything else was published regarding her death.”

    After a short discussion, Steph left for the library and Susan headed for the shower. Patty had said she was planning on working this weekend. She seemed to know a lot of gossip. There couldn’t be any harm in asking a few discreet questions.

    A few blocks from ESS, Susan stopped at a tiny bakery and brought some freshly baked brownies. The way Patty had been wolfing down the candy that first day they met, she must have a killer sweet tooth. Maybe a little sugar would pave the way.

    When she arrived at the company building, the parking lot was almost half full. She used her badge to unlock the front door. The hallways were quiet and dim.

    Susan found Patty in her cube drumming long red nails on her desk and staring at her computer screen. When she said hello from the doorway, Patty yelped and spun around.

    “You scared the daylights out of me!”

    Susan apologized and placed the pink bakery box onto the desk. “Want a brownie?”

    Patty helped herself. “What are you doing here?”

    Susan shrugged and lied evenly. “I forgot your team had to come in today. I thought I’d have the computer system to myself so I could run through a tutorial without bothering anyone. I logged on and was surprised to see that you were too, so I figured I’d come say hi.”

    “I’ve been struggling with these installation instructions for an hour. They’re technically perfect, but the project manager, Elaine Howard, says I have to get it all on one sheet of paper.” Patty tossed her pencil onto the desk in disgust. “I can’t fit it on one page unless I take out all the art and shrink the text to 8 points.” She snorted. “Then we’d have to send people a magnifying glass just to make it readable.”

    Susan nodded sympathetically. Maybe she could win Patty’s confidence by helping her. She could think of one simple solution right off the bat.

    “What if you used a bigger piece of paper?”

    Patty just looked at her blankly.

    “Our laser printers can handle 11-by-17 inch paper, which gives you twice as much space as regular 8.5-by-11 paper.” She allowed a hint of a smirk to show in her smile. “Elaine can’t complain because technically you’re still using only one sheet of paper.”

    Patty’s eyes gleamed. “Hey, that might work. I would have room for all my artwork and I could use normal size text. I like it! Thanks.”

    “You’re welcome. I wish every problem was as easy to fix. Do you want to break for lunch?”

    “Everyone else went out to lunch ages ago, but I was having such a hard time, I figured I’d better keep working.” She grinned. “But now that you’ve solved my problem, I guess I’m free. Let’s go!”

    They walked around the corner to the deli, ordered sandwiches at the counter, and sat at a little table in the front window. It was Saturday afternoon, and downtown Redmond was bustling. Half the town seemed to be running errands.

    A trio of familiar faces, two men and a woman, passed right by the window in front of them. Susan pointed. “Don’t they work at ESS?”

    Patty’s eyes narrowed as she watched them continue what looked like a lunchtime power walk. “They sure do.”

    Something about her dry tone caught Susan’s attention. “What?”

    “They’re sleeping together.”

    Susan leaned forward to get another look, but they had already gone too far down the street. “Which ones?”

    “All three of them. Simultaneously.”

    “No way.”

    Patty nodded. “I kid you not. And two of them are married, but not to each other.”

    “That’s gross! Does everybody at ESS know?”

    “No, so keep it under your hat.”

    This absolutely confirmed Susan’s decision to talk to Patty first about Rebecca. The woman seemed to know all kinds of secrets. Susan would love to know how she’d learned about the menage à trois, but she had bigger fish to fry.

    “Tell me more about the girl I replaced.” Susan hated calling a grown woman a girl, but Patty seemed like that type. Now wasn’t the time to stand on principles.

    “It’s hard to resist, huh? Like when there’s an accident on the highway and you just have to get a good look.” Patty might be making fun of her, but she still seemed eager to talk.

    Susan shrugged. “Every time I introduce myself to someone, it reminds them that she’s gone and they get kind of weird on me. I just wish I knew the whole story.”

    “I can understand that. But don’t worry. You are so much better than she was.”

    Their sandwiches and drinks came at that moment, and they ate in silence for a few minutes.

    “It’s awful that she died so young. I bet the whole company felt the shock. Did she have any close friends at work?”

    Patty made a face. “Well, she seemed to get along best with men, if you know what I mean.”

    Susan didn’t, but wondered. Did Patty mean Rebecca slept around? Or was she one of those women who just naturally hang out with the guys and avoid women?

    Patty leaned a little closer to Susan. “I already told you she was high the night she fell, right? The real dirt is that last year the company had to send her off to a some kind of lockup treatment center to get her to dry out.” She raised her eyebrows and seemed to be waiting for a reaction from Susan.

    She complied. “Oh my! When was this? What happened?”

    “Word is, they caught her sloshed one afternoon. She actually had a bottle in her desk drawer! HR stepped in and gave her the choice of termination or treatment. She was quietly whisked away to some fancy dude ranch over the mountains for a whole month. Then one day she was back at work, no explanations, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, and no one was supposed to notice.”

    “But it’s a small company.”

    “Yup, and we noticed. She was a bitch before treatment, and a bitch after it.” She smirked. “Maybe she should have gotten a personality transplant while she was gone.”

    Susan laughed despite herself. She’d been right on target when she’d memorized Patty’s name by rhyming it with the word catty.

    “Like I told you the other day, there was some talk about her and Dave. They seemed to become very friendly in the last couple of months, so some people jumped to the wrong conclusion.”

    Susan had forgotten about that. Maybe Dave could help her figure out what happened. She’d have to tell him about the bar-coded threats.

    Susan said dryly, “There seems to be a lot of inbreeding in this company.”

    Patty choked with laughter. “But what do you expect? We spend so much time at work, who has the energy to go out looking for strangers to date? It’s easier to look in the next department, and just hope when it ends, it ends quietly.”

    “I see your point.” But she didn’t really agree with Patty. Her relationship with Jack hadn’t ended quietly, and it had almost sent her career down the tubes. Dating coworkers, even one at a time, was just too risky. Not even a guy like Dave was worth that kind of publicity.

    Patty checked her watch. “If we leave now,” she said, “I’ll have just enough time to reformat and print my installation instructions before the two o’clock status meeting.”

    They headed back to the office. When they reached the lobby of the building, Patty pushed the button for the elevator. The elevator doors opened and Patty stepped inside.

    As the doors slid shut, Susan called, “See you later,” and headed down the hall toward her closet. Steph couldn’t be back from the library so soon, so she might as well get a little work done and then send out some self-promotional email.


    Chapter 10


    Armed with the Sunday paper, a sack of breakfast goodies, and a carryout tray from the espresso stand, Steph mentally prepared herself for her campaign to change Susan’s mind about her new job. She had to convince her to leave that ESS place ASAP. What the heck did ESS stand for anyway? Endanger Susan’s Self? Extremely Suspicious Situation?

    The problem was, there was no reasoning with the woman once she’d made up her mind. Too bad none of the interview books she swore by had included a chapter on good reasons to quit your new job. “Coworkers who kill” ought to be at the top of that list.

    Because her hands were full, she had to kick Susan’s back door gently a couple of times instead of knocking. The red-checkered curtain hitched as someone peeked at her, and the door swung open.

    “Oh my God, do I smell bagels? I swear, if you were a guy, I’d marry you.”

    Susan took the cardboard tray of lattes from her and let Steph into the kitchen.

    “Just call me the breakfast fairy.” Steph dumped everything on the table and noticed an open paper carton of leftover Chinese food. “What’s this doing out?”

    “I was working up my courage--there’s nothing else to eat in this house!”

    Steph picked up the carton and wrinkled her nose. Broccoli was not supposed to be brown. “How long has this been in the fridge?”

    Susan just shrugged. She probably didn’t know, which meant it hadn’t even been her dinner to start with. Steph shook her head in disgust and dropped the carton into the trash can. How certain people managed to stay alive year after year with such poor survival skills, she’d never know.

    “I’ll set the table.” A grin flashed across Susan’s face before she turned away to rattle around the silverware drawer.

    Steph sat at the table to unpack the food. The warm bagels, she dumped into the bread basket. She’d gotten half a dozen, assuming Chris and Roger would join in. She pried open the containers of cream cheese and smoked salmon. When she looked up, Susan was sitting across from her, pouring their steaming lattes into ceramic mugs. But she had only set two places.

    “The guys aren’t here?”

    Susan shook her head absently as she reached for a sesame bagel. Steph’s heart sank. Where the heck was Chris? He always slept late on Sundays. She busied herself, slicing a bagel, hoping her disappointment didn’t show. Susan would flip if she caught a hint of this new crush.

    Over the years, Susan had developed this highly inaccurate, slightly flattering picture of Stephanie as femme fatale, breaking the heart of every man she dated. When she first moved in here, Susan had warned Steph that her roommates must remain off limits, romantically. She was afraid that someday she’d have to move out because Roger or Chris couldn’t bear to see Steph again. The whole thing had seemed funny, and easy to abide by, until Steph had started spending time with Chris.

    “This is so great. I owe you one, anything you want,” Susan promised between bites.

    “Great.” Steph could figure out her love life some other time. Now she had to get Susan back on course. She slid the classified section of the Sunday paper across the table toward her best friend, who looked at the paper curiously.

    “I want you to find a new job.”

    Susan raised her eyebrows, but didn’t say anything. She stalled for time, putting down her bagel, sipping her latte, all the while staring thoughtfully at Steph. Finally, she cleared her throat. “You must have had some luck at the library yesterday.”

    Steph ignored her, reaching over to open the classified section to the high tech listings. “I took the liberty of circling all the ads for tech writers. The market looks very hot.”

    Susan glanced at the paper, but she didn’t stop to read any of the circled ads. Instead, she dabbed her fingers on a napkin and leaned back in her chair.

    “I assume you made me a photocopy of the article that mentioned Rebecca’s death?”

    They stared at each other, at an impasse.

    Steph took another shot. “I noticed a couple of agencies looking for contract technical writers. You’ve always wanted to be independent.”

    Susan shook her head, as stubborn and unyielding as ever. Steph sighed. Maybe she could bargain with the woman. She pulled several sheets of paper out of her purse and held them up like bait.

    “I went online and found two newspaper articles.” She glanced pointedly at the classifieds.

    Susan’s eyes narrowed, but she leaned over the paper. Her lips moved, as if to prove she was reading. After a minute, she looked up, shook her head, and explained, “They’re looking for a writer who can program in Java Script. I can’t.”

    Steph handed her the first printout, a news brief from the Seattle Post Intelligencer which began with the tiny headline, “Woman Dies.”

    Susan had the grace to say thanks without a hint of triumph.

    “That came out the morning after it happened.”

    Susan pored over the tiny note, which presented only the most basic details: Rebecca Ann Cafferty, 26, had been found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs at a small Redmond software company where she worked as a technical writer. A coworker had found the body. The death appeared to be an accident. An autopsy would be performed.

    “I wonder what the autopsy revealed.” Her gaze landed on the second printout, which clearly contained a longer article.

    “Read another ad, and I’ll tell you.”

    Susan slid her finger over the classifieds until she hit one of the ads Steph had circled. “Hey, I know a guy who works at this company.”

    “Will you call him and ask about the opening?”

    Susan nodded and held out her hand for the printout.

    Steph passed it to her. “The Seattle Times published this a week after she died. They mention her in the lead, but the article is really about how drug and alcohol abuse impact Washington businesses on an ongoing basis.”

    Susan scanned the article. The autopsy determined that Rebecca had died from a broken neck, consistent with having fallen down the stairs. She’d had a stomach full of pizza and Ketamine, a veterinary anesthetic. Toxicology tests had determined that enough of the drug had made it into her system to produce paranoia and dizziness. The article also said that the company had sent this employee to an expensive 28-day treatment program when they first discovered her problem with alcohol. Although treatment hadn’t helped Ms. Cafferty, someone from the state labor board said it was currently the best tool companies had in the war against substance abuse.

    The Seattle Times article didn’t say much about Ketamine, which had prompted Steph to search the web for more info. “Vets use this drug to knock out large animals for surgery. One of its street names is Special K, which must completely thrill that cereal company. It makes it so you don’t feel pain, but if you take too much it knocks you out.” She made a face. “Some kids in Seattle got caught using it as a date rape drug.”

    “Why would anyone take something like that?” Susan muttered.

    “Who cares?” Steph hadn’t found anything that convinced her there was a killer at ESS, but she wasn’t willing to take a chance. She had to convince Susan to leave there. “I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but really Susan, it’s none of your business. I’m sorry that she used drugs and died, but there’s nothing you can do. Clearly, those threats we found had nothing to do with what happened. You need to forget all about this--and if you can’t forget it because you took over her job, then you should get a new job.”

    Dave leaned against the kitchen counter and watched Carol drop balls of biscuit dough onto a baking sheet. At six feet tall, he towered over her. Her hands and apron were covered with flour, which was also dusted across the top of her head. She was a sweet, untidy elf of a woman, and he owed his life to her and her husband, Dick.

    He had met Dick at an AA meeting at his treatment center. Dick had become his sponsor, and the couple took an interest in Dave. When he was released, he moved into their basement apartment and started working for Dick’s construction company. Eventually, Carol had talked Dave into taking advantage of the BS in Computer Science he’d earned at the UW.

    “Carol, was it strange dating a guy who didn’t drink?”

    She thought for a minute before answering. “It must not have been too strange, seeing that I eventually married him.” She smiled mischievously. “There are stranger things about Dick than the fact that he’s in AA.”

    They laughed. The ticking clock marked time in their companionable silence.

    Suddenly, Carol dropped her spoon. “You’re not really asking about Dick and me, are you? Have you met someone?”

    Dave started to shrug noncommittally, but changed his mind and grinned. “Yeah, I think so.”

    She laughed and squeezed his arm, unconsciously leaving smudges of flour on his blue plaid shirt. “I’m so glad. Where’d you meet her? She’s not in the program?”

    “I just met her at work. She hired on last week, and I really like her. But she has no idea.” He picked up a dish towel and wiped the flour off his sleeve. “No idea that I like her, no idea about who I am.”

    He twisted the towel. He was almost thirty, but sometimes he felt as insecure as a teenager.

    “So she’ll find out about you, and you’ll find out about her, and you’ll see what happens.” Carol’s voice was gentle, and Dave knew she was really reminding him that he wasn’t the one running the show.


    Chapter 11


    “Dude, I like what you’ve done with the place!”

    Susan looked up to see Andy in the doorway to her office. Tucked into his long, baggy denim shorts was the stereotypical geek white short-sleeved oxford shirt, complete with a breast pocket full of pens. He was a hip caricature of geekiness. She grinned at him.

    “Thanks. I think it seems bigger.”

    The halogen lamp from home bounced a powerful flood of white light off the ceiling, making the jittery fluorescents unnecessary. Over her filing cabinet hung a poster of a window overlooking a country meadow. If she didn’t look at it too closely, the poster always tricked her into thinking there really was a window.

    “Man, if Rebecca had only realized how good this dump could be.” He said her name affectionately, as if they’d been friends.

    Susan tried to sound only mildly curious. “Did you know her well?”

    Andy nodded so vigorously that his spiky blond hair quivered. “You bet. And don’t believe what everyone tells you. She had some trouble, but she had really been trying to keep on the straight and narrow.”

    Susan nodded politely. She certainly was not about to point out that Rebecca had not been quite as firmly planted on the straight and narrow path as he seemed to think, based on the state she’d been in at the end.

    “Were you here the night she, um, died?”

    “Yeah. Phil wanted someone here in case the network went down.”

    “Were there a lot of people around?”

    He shrugged. “The whole AT team, from Phil to the testers. Martha went home right after she brought in the pizza. If you didn’t have to be here, you weren’t.”

    “Gee, with that many people wandering around, you’d think someone might have seen something.”

    Andy shook his head. “This was a major deadline, and Phil had everyone in the Pit working like dogs. I didn’t see anyone wandering around, blowing off steam. It was intense.”

    “Did you talk to Rebecca that night?”

    Andy shook his head. “She was working up in the software lab all alone. I was bored, so I hung out in the kitchen talking to people once the food arrived. She never even came down to grab something to eat.”

    Susan stood by the laser printer in the hallway, capturing each page of chapter one as it came off the printer. She’d made all the technical changes Tom wanted and cleaned up the writing style. If she were lucky, this might be the final draft.

    “You made quite an impression on Janet last week.”

    Philip’s voice made her jump. She hadn’t heard him approach. She looked at him, wondering why his comment had sounded more like an accusation than a compliment.

    “I’d like to give you a side project.”

    He was standing a little too close to her, and she could smell his body odor. Oh God, he was probably one of those back-to-nature types who refuse to wear deodorant. That would explain the bare feet, too. Susan casually stepped to the other side of the laser printer, putting the machine between them. What was this guy going to smell like in August, when the sun finally came out?

    “We use a web page to distribute the Salmon software to our beta test sites. We had some problems with it last time, and I want you to redesign it. Your resume indicated that you’ve had a lot of HTML experience, so I’m assuming you can handle this.”

    She nodded quickly. She loved working on the web.

    “How soon can you have a demo ready for the team?”

    “I can have something done for the next status meeting.” That was scheduled for Friday morning. She was showing off, but it felt good. She really should have said she had to look at the code to evaluate the situation, but Philip’s attitude made her want to prove herself.

    He raised his eyebrows. “Fine.”

    The way he said it, she wasn’t sure if he was hoping she’d come through or fail. She would succeed, though. She’d work until midnight all week if she had to.

    “Susan, when you present the new web page to the team, I’d like you to emphasize how you solved the problems of the previous page and how you improved on its design. This is a learning opportunity for those of us who haven’t spent the last six months at Web-Tech.”

    That made sense. She nodded. Unless they were asking for company secrets, she’d be glad to share anything she’d learned at Web-Tech.

    He turned and walked back to his office. But he hadn’t given her enough information. She couldn’t let him disappear yet.

    “Philip, what kind of problems did you have with the web page? Where do I find the files?”

    He scowled. “Talk to Tom.” He shut his office door behind him. Someone should teach this man some manners.

    As she carried her printout back to the closet, Susan wondered if Philip had given her the assignment because Janet liked her and he wanted to make Janet happy, or because he wanted to give her enough rope to hang herself? So many people here disliked him, so she probably should assume the worst.

    It didn’t matter, though, because she would do a great job.

    She tossed her printout onto the filing cabinet and leaned over her desk to dial Tom’s extension.

    Susan strolled down the corridor toward the coffee room, planning her day. If she worked fast, she could finish revising chapter two of the Price Tag Designer manual this morning and spend the rest of the day updating the web page. That would be fun.

    Ahead of her, she saw Alice and two of her test engineers standing by the doorway to the coffee room. Maybe someone had posted a really good Dilbert cartoon. She joined them.

    Alice stepped away to let Susan see the sheet of paper taped to the wall. She was grinning.

    “Hey Susan, look at this.”

    The notice began with the word DANGER followed by several exclamation points. The rest of the text was in one big paragraph, single spaced, all caps. Susan shook her head. People just don’t understand how much formatting can affect readability.

    The gist of the message was that whoever had been tipping the soda machine and getting free cans of pop was putting himself in danger and really ticking off the distributor. A lot of people were injured every year from machines falling on them, and ESS demanded that the culprit cease and desist immediately.

    Susan turned back to the others, who seemed to be waiting to hear what she thought. “A can of pop costs twenty-five cents here. Why would anyone do this?”

    The engineer with the long gray beard shrugged. “It’s a plea for help. Our salaries just aren’t competitive.”

    Alice snorted in disgust and nudged Susan. “Rick thinks everything is a plea for help. I think it’s just another example of the adolescent behavior typical in this company. Nobody tips the machines over in a real company like Microsoft.”

    The younger engineer sighed. “But the drinks are free at Microsoft.”

    This was delivered in such a wistful tone that everyone started laughing.

    Dave was monitoring the load on the network when Susan stuck her head into his office and asked, “Hey, Dave, are you free for an early lunch?”

    She looked great. Her smile brightened the room, and her brown eyes seemed to grab him. She was pretty, but not in any kind of fussy, made-up way.

    “You bet I’m free.” He logged out of the network management software, making a mental note to not bring lunch in tomorrow. The leftover chicken and rice he’d brought in this morning would still be good.

    “Great. I wanted to try the Chinese buffet down the street.”

    Dave felt Andy’s eyes on them as they walked out of the IT office and headed for the elevator. He was relieved Andy didn’t shoot off some embarrassing remark.

    A misty rain was falling, and they walked quickly to the Chinese restaurant. Susan was just a couple inches shorter than him, and he noticed that he didn’t have to shorten his stride to let her keep up.

    At the restaurant, while Dave wiped the rain from his glasses, Susan asked the waitress if they could have a table in the back, away from the rest of the diners. She obviously wanted some privacy. Maybe she was attracted to him and wanted to make the first move. That would explain why she’d gone out of her way to solve the litter box problem for him. It would be complicated dating someone at work, but he was willing to try it.

    Going out with a woman who wasn’t in the program would have one huge advantage. When they broke up, he wouldn’t have to stop going to the same meetings she went to, at least until the pain faded. Thank God his homegroup was a men’s meeting.

    They slid into a red-cushioned booth. When the waitress brought them a pot of hot tea, they both indicated that they wanted the buffet lunch. The waitress made a note on her order pad and invited them to help themselves.

    No one was in line. Dave let Susan go first. She seemed to lean toward vegetables and tofu. He piled at least one scoop of everything onto his plate. He needed the calories after spending the weekend putting a wood shake roof on one of the houses Dick was building.

    As they walked back to their booth, Dave noticed the restaurant was starting to fill up. So far, no one had been seated near them. If she was going to ask him out, no one would overhear her.

    But as they dug into their lunches, she didn’t say anything, except for a couple of comments about how good the food was. After they’d made a dent in their hunger, he noticed Susan glancing at him nervously. It was kind of sweet that she wasn’t comfortable being so bold. Dave smiled gently, hoping that he looked reassuring. He wanted to put her at ease, but he couldn’t make this first move for her.

    She leaned toward him and said softly, “I wanted to talk to you about Rebecca Cafferty.”

    “Really?” Shock at hearing Rebecca’s name mingled with his embarrassment over being so far off the mark.

    Susan didn’t seem to notice his discomfort. She rambled on. “It’s been strange taking over a job for a person who died. In a way she’s still around, in everyone’s review comments and thoughts, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know her. Does that seem weird?”

    “No, I understand.” He tried to focus on what she was saying and not on the ache in his chest he felt whenever he thought of Rebecca. Susan probably just wanted some help settling into her new job.

    “So I asked around about Rebecca a bit to get to know her.”

    “Why talk to me?” He picked up the teapot and started filling their cups.

    “I heard you two were friends.” She paused, searching his face. “I got an impression that Rebecca’s death was not the accident that everyone thinks it is.”

    Dave looked at her sharply. The cup overflowed before he noticed. He put the pot down and dropped his paper napkin into the puddle of tea.

    “Why would you say that?” The food he’d eaten felt like a large, greasy lump in his stomach.

    “I was going through some of her stuff, and I found what looks like a series of threatening notes. I haven’t told anyone about this. I’m not sure what to do.”

    “What kind of threatening notes? Where did you find them?”

    She didn’t seem upset that he was spitting these questions out like a drill sergeant. She sat there, calmly answering him. “They’re in one of her binders. The threats were actually encoded in various bar code symbologies, so it must have been someone here--”

    He started laughing. She must have found the notes Mary Ann Cross had sent Rebecca. Susan’s face turned a little red, and he realized he was being rude.

    He apologized quickly. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you. I’m actually quite impressed. You have a knack for uncovering things.”

    She accepted the compliment with a quick smile. “What do you mean?”

    “I’m assuming the notes said things like, ‘Ignorant bitch, where did you buy your degree’ and ‛I hope you drop dead.’”

    Susan nodded and leaned forward. “Yes, just like that. How did you know?”

    Dave was glad she didn’t look mad anymore. He’d forgotten about the trouble between Rebecca and Mary Ann. It had happened almost six months ago, before he’d gotten to know Rebecca. It seemed like a million years ago.

    “Last fall, Rebecca started receiving those anonymous, threatening notes. She’d go to a meeting, and when she got back to her office, she’d find a bar code waiting for her on her chair. Once she found one in her lunch bag. She complained to HR, and I was pulled in to help them figure out who was doing it. It turned out to be the editor, Mary Ann Cross. She and Rebecca had some kind of long-standing feud. Before HR could take action, Mary Ann resigned.”

    Susan raised her eyebrows. “What makes you think this woman didn’t sneak back in to make good on her threats?”

    He shrugged. “She moved to California because some Hollywood studio bought a story she wrote. After that, she didn’t seem to care about Rebecca any more.”

    “But Rebecca still cared. She saved the notes in a three-ring binder with a bunch of other sample bar codes. If she didn’t care, she would have thrown them away.”

    “I still don’t think this has anything to do with what happened to her.”

    Susan tapped her chopsticks on her plate. “Then you think I’m off on a wild goose chase, huh? I was sure the person who sent those notes finally got mad enough to push her down the stairs.”

    “I don’t think anyone pushed her.” He grimaced. “But I can’t believe she was doing drugs. I would have known.”

    “How can you be sure?”

    Dave pushed the food around his plate, avoiding her eyes. He really didn’t know Susan well enough to tell her that he had been going to AA meetings with Rebecca, and that’s why he was so sure she hadn’t relapsed. If he told her he was an alcoholic, she might spread it around the company. Even worse, she might realize that’s where he’d met her roommate. He couldn’t break Roger’s anonymity, even if Roger wasn't going to meetings anymore. He’d have to tread carefully.

    When he looked up, she was watching him, waiting for his answer.

    “She’d been doing so well after getting out of that treatment center. She was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and it just didn’t seem like she was going to relapse.”

    “But how can you be sure? Addiction is--”

    “Addiction is something I know about.” He sighed. “I’m not open about this at work, so I hope I can count on you to keep this between us.”

    She nodded, but looked confused.

    “I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for seven years. I was going to AA with Rebecca.”

    Susan stared at him. “No way.”

    He just nodded, waiting for her to work it out in her head. Sometimes it took people a while to process the news. They meet you, they like you, and then you tell them you’re in AA and they can’t help but picture you drunk and panhandling in Pioneer Square.

    She sat back against the high cushioned booth. “I never would’ve guessed.”

    He found himself watching her face closely for a hint of what she was thinking. She definitely didn’t look happy. He realized he hadn’t taken a breath for a couple of seconds. This was the first time he’d ever disclosed his alcoholism to a woman he was attracted to. It was so much easier to date women he met in the program.

    She smiled. “Seven years is a really long time. It’s great that you got control of the problem.”

    Dave opened his mouth and then closed it. Now wasn’t the time to explain that he was powerless over alcohol. That might give her the impression he would gulp down the first drink he came across. It was more important to stick to the topic at hand.

    “When ESS sent her to treatment, Rebecca really did clean up her act. I went to some meetings with her. I even introduced her to the woman who became her sponsor. She was working hard to stay sober. Then all of a sudden she’s dead, and people are saying fell down the stairs because she was high on Special K, of all things.”

    “And you don’t believe it.”

    “No, I don’t. She went to an AA meeting that day.”

    Susan gave him a sympathetic look. Dave kept picturing Rebecca in that flowered dress, finally starting to look like a lady instead of a scary gothic teenager.

    “She didn’t do drugs. I’m sure of that.”

    “What makes you so sure?” The question was softly insistent. He wanted to explain it to her, even though the answer might seem silly to an outsider.

    “We had this ongoing joke. She said she was better than me because she was a ‘pure’ alcoholic--all she ever did was drink--whereas I smoked pot all through high school.”

    Her eyebrows shot up and she crossed her arms. “My, my, you were a bad boy.”

    She said it lightly, but Dave had the feeling she meant it somehow. Her eyes swept over him as if searching for any signs of current drug use. Well, Carol had told him all he could do was be himself and see what happened. He certainly couldn’t pretend to be someone else to win Susan over.

    “Rebecca wouldn’t have lied about it?”

    “No.” He shrugged. “It sounds sick, but in AA, the worse your story is, the more terrible stuff you put yourself through, the cooler it is when you finally get sober. So if she had any kind of drug history, I would’ve heard about it.”

    “Did you tell anyone this?”

    Dave nodded, remembering his frustration. “The cop who interviewed me after it happened. He wrote it down, but I don’t think he believed me. Besides, there was no way I was going to tell him why I was so sure.”

    “I can understand that.” Susan grinned. “Police make me nervous, and I’ve never gotten into any kind of trouble.”

    He shot her a disbelieving look, and her grin widened. “Well, my best friend and I did get into a little trouble on vacation last summer. But we helped solve the crime--we weren’t in on it.”

    “You played detective?” A spark of hope flared in his chest.

    She shrugged. “Same thing as today. I thought I had something, like with those threatening notes, so I asked some questions. It was easy. I guess I've read too many mystery novels.”

    She was good at it, too. She’d managed to get him to spill his guts. Maybe they could accomplish something together.

    “Susan, I’m not saying I think Rebecca was murdered. That's too far out. But I do want to find out what happened. If you are going to poke around, I’d like to help.” He wanted to add that this might be the one thing that would give him peace, but the words caught in his throat.

    Susan’s brown eyes were serious. “Okay. I could use the help.”

    “Where do you want to start?”

    She thought for a second. “I guess I need to know what kind of person Rebecca was, but the most important thing is to establish exactly what happened that day.”

    “I’d have to check my calendar, but I’m sure I can give you a pretty accurate picture.”

    “Would you be able to say who was in the building that night?”

    He nodded. “I think so. Andy can help. He was babysitting the network that night.”

    “That’s what he told me.”

    Dave chuckled. “You surprise me, Susan. I can’t wait to hear what else you’ve dug up.”

    They split the bill and headed back to work. Dave invited her to come to his office. He could at least start giving her information about that day before he had to rush off to his afternoon round of meetings.

    A chubby, animated man practically tackled Dave in the lobby, begging for assistance with a network problem. Dave looked helplessly at Susan, but she shrugged and waved him off. She headed down the hall to her office, glad for once that she had some privacy at work even if it was a claustrophobic little closet. She wanted to be alone as she contemplated the enormity of what he’d told her. Dave was an alcoholic?

    “Damn, damn, damn.” She started muttering as soon as she dropped into her chair. He had seemed so perfect, like no one else she’d met. She picked up a pen and drummed against the edge of her metal desk. The tinny noise bounced off the walls.

    It didn’t matter what she thought of him because he probably thought she was an idiot. She could’ve slapped herself when she heard herself say, “I’m so glad you got control of your problem.” She couldn’t have come across as more condescending if she’d tried.

    She threw her pen across the desk. Maybe it was for the best. She had five and a half months left in her stupid vow of celibacy, and obviously the universe didn’t want her rushing into a relationship. Plus she had already heard Patty trashing coworkers who were dating. There was no way to keep anything a secret in this company. She’d be stupid to get involved with Dave Bennett.

    Except as part of their investigation, of course. He’d offered to help her figure out what had happened, and she was definitely taking advantage of his offer. Maybe they’d become friends. A lot could happen in five and a half months. Susan ticked off the months in her head: April, May, June, July, August… Until then, she ought to put away these romantic fantasies about Dave. Right now, she should concentrate on making a good impression on her coworkers and quietly figuring out what happened to Rebecca.

    Despite what Dave had said, Mary Ann Cross could have had something to do with Rebecca Cafferty’s death. Hollywood wasn’t a million miles away. It wasn’t impossible to come back to Seattle especially if you had a compelling reason to come back, like a great sale at Nordstrom’s or an old enemy to knock off.

    Susan found a web site called “How Far Is It” that used census data to calculate the distance between two cities. She typed in Redmond WA and Hollywood CA and clicked the Search button. The answer appeared quickly: Redmond was only nine hundred and fifty seven miles from Hollywood. Dave had acted as if it were more like nine thousand and fifty seven miles away.

    Obviously, Susan needed to learn more about Mary Ann. Mark Eastman was the most senior person in Tech Pubs, and he’d been pretty friendly so far. Maybe he’d like the chance to gossip about a former colleague. Susan shut down her browser, logged off, and headed for the elevator.

    When she reached his cube, Mark was on the phone. She heard him say, “What about vet bills?” This was obviously a personal call.

    She hovered in the corridor outside his cubicle waiting for him to finish. The hall was lined with windows that looked out on the greenbelt behind the building. She braced her hands against the cool glass and looked outside. It was raining and sunny at the same time. She’d never thought that was a funny combination of weather conditions until she met a transplanted New Yorker who insisted that it should be gray when it rained. He hadn’t lasted long in the Pacific Northwest.

    A rumble of footsteps made her turn and flatten herself against the window. A herd of test engineers was coming her way. They swept by her with elbows flying and hips wiggling like speedwalkers.

    Alice trotted along behind them with a little more dignity. “We’ve been summoned by the king.” She rolled her eyes and hurried to catch up.

    She had to be talking about Philip Corbin. Before Susan could do more than wonder at what he could want, the clatter of the receiver into the cradle indicated that Mark was off the phone. Susan stepped into his doorway.

    “Hey, Mark, got a minute?”

    He nodded, and she sat in his guest chair, which was miraculously still clear from the last time she’d visited him. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I feel like the dad sometimes, always making the tough decisions.”

    Susan pointed at the pictures of two kids in Halloween costumes tacked to his wall. “But you are the dad.”

    He smiled. “Not with them. With my wife, Sarah.”

    “Your wife wants a puppy?”

    When he gave her a surprised look, she shrugged. It was tacky to admit that you heard anything over a cube wall. You were supposed to pretend that you couldn’t possibly hear anything so everyone could maintain the illusion of privacy. But Susan was tired of office secrets.

    “Yeah. She’ll get it, too. And I’ll end up walking it.” He shook his head. “I’m sure you didn’t drop by to talk about my new dog.”

    Susan plunged in. “I’m wondering who edited the Price Tag Designer manual for Rebecca. I’ll be ready for a final edit soon.”

    He tapped his chest. “That’s me. I edited her first draft in November. I can do the final edit for you. I’m not too busy.”

    Susan looked at his desk, piled high with books and papers. “I can tell you must be bored.”

    He smiled. Everyone was overworked, but it was job security. He pulled his calendar out from under one of the stacks of paper.

    “When do you want to give me your draft?”

    “Monday.” Susan pretended to think for a minute while he made a note in the calendar. “You edited this thing in November? Wasn’t there a full-time editor working here then? Why didn’t she edit this book?”

    Mark looked at her closely for a few seconds, and Susan kept her face arranged in what she hoped was a curious, innocent expression. He must have liked what he saw, because he tossed his pen onto the desk. “Let’s go for a walk.”

    Then he was up on his feet and out the doorway and Susan scrambled to follow him. They walked briskly away from the area where the writers sat. Susan was close behind Mark, excited because he was going to tell her something he didn’t want everyone to overhear.

    The coffee room was empty. Mark kicked the triangle of wood that propped the door open, and the door swung shut. Anyone could easily walk in, but no one in the hall could eavesdrop. Now all they had to worry about was the coffee cam. Mark headed straight for the coffee maker, so Susan took a seat at one of the tables out of the camera’s range. There was no reason to let people know they were talking.

    Mark held up the glass coffee pot so she could see the black sludge in the bottom. He shook his head and put the pot under a stream of hot water in the sink.

    “It must be hard to resist asking questions about Rebecca. It doesn’t bother me as long as you don’t let it get in the way of your work.” He flashed a proud smile at her. “Tom Brent says you’re getting a lot done.”

    Susan nodded, accepting the compliment. It was great to know Tom liked her work and wasn’t shy about saying so. She’d have to find a way to thank him.

    Mark poured fresh water into the coffee maker and put the pot on the burner. “Last spring we decided it was time to create department guidelines so all our manuals would look the same.”

    Susan nodded. A uniform look to all the manuals would go a long way toward making customers think you’re a large, stable company. That was really important if you’re planning to go public, when everything you do will be scrutinized by analysts.

    He wiped his wet hands on his shirt. “We thought it would be a good idea to bring in an editor to help create and enforce the guidelines. We hired Mary Ann Cross. She had a lot of experience and a toughness we thought would help. Kind of like when you pick a personal trainer--you want someone who isn’t going to let you sleep late and skip your workouts if it’s raining.”

    Even if she hadn’t seen the threatening notes this editor had sent Rebecca, Susan was sure she wouldn’t like the idea of a drill sergeant for an editor.

    Mark was dumping scoop after scoop of coffee into the filter. Susan hoped he was counting.

    “Mary Ann turned out to be a real bitch, pardon my French. She got on everyone’s nerves pretty quick. But the guidelines she compiled were really good. So most of us just worked around her and tried to keep the peace.”

    “But not Rebecca?” It wasn’t hard to guess, with what Susan had learned so far. Rebecca had been a rebel.

    Mark nodded. “Not Rebecca.” He pushed the button to start the coffee perking and then turned to face her, leaning back against the counter. “They were at each other’s throats from the beginning. During one meeting, Mary Ann presented some of the new rules to us and Rebecca started heckling her. I thought Mary Ann was going to have a stroke.”

    “Did you step in?”

    “I didn’t know what to do. I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t even have sisters. So I just sat there like everyone else and pretended I didn’t notice. After the meeting, I went down to HR and dumped it in Gloria’s lap. She said to keep them apart.” He shrugged. “That’s the long version of how I got the job of editing Rebecca’s stuff.”

    Susan frowned. Sweeping conflicts under the rug like that rarely worked. “Did that solve the problem?”

    “I think it made it worse. Mary Ann was really wound up tight. It didn’t take much to offend her. She was the type you look at and wonder if someday they aren’t going to come in with a gun and start shooting, you know?” He shuddered.

    “Wow.” She shuddered, too, involuntarily. He didn’t know it, but he was making her case for her.

    “Anyway, around the same time frame, someone started leaving really rude messages in Rebecca’s office. They were actually bar coded, so she had to scan them to see what they said. It was creepy.”

    Susan raised her eyebrows, trying to look surprised.

    “Since no one sat near Rebecca, no one could say who was leaving the notes. Of course, it turned out to be Mary Ann. Not many people know that part.”

    He’d be surprised how many people were in on the secret. The weird part was that he didn’t seem to think it was important that Rebecca had ended up dead. It seemed natural to make the connection between the threats and her fall. Why wasn’t anyone else thinking along those lines? Susan didn’t know Mark well enough yet to ask him directly.

    “Before Gloria could do anything, Mary Ann resigned. She’d been working on a novel. She sold the movie rights to some Hollywood studio.”

    “That’s amazing.”

    He looked tired. “It was like a cosmic slap in the face. Here’s this person who gets the big reward, fame and fortune, and then poor Rebecca ends up dead.” He looked at his watch. “I’ve got to get back to work. I have to leave early tonight.”

    “You have to see a man about a dog?”

    He grinned. “Bingo.” He turned to leave.

    “Hey, Mark, aren’t you forgetting something?” He looked perplexed. She pointed toward the coffee maker. “Aren’t you going to have a cup?”

    He grinned and threw his hands in the air. “I don’t touch the stuff. I gave up caffeine, cigarettes and red meat. I plan to live forever.”

    It will only feel like forever. Susan didn’t say it out loud because she liked him. When he was gone, she stepped into view of the coffee cam and filled a paper cup with the freshly perked coffee. She felt a little self conscious as she stirred sugar into the dark elixir.

    Both Mark and Dave seemed oblivious to the idea that Mary Ann could have taken the next step in her campaign against Rebecca and pushed her down the stairs that night. Of course, that still didn’t explain why Rebecca had taken drugs that night.

    Susan brought the coffee cup to her lips, but the harsh smell burned her nose. She didn’t even want to taste it. He had put in too many scoops. She turned her back to the coffee cam and emptied her cup into the sink. Mark probably would live longer if he didn’t drink his own coffee.

    “Information Technology, Dave Bennett speaking.”

    “Oh, so that’s what IT stands for. I thought it was International Translations or Interesting Trousers.” Susan slapped her hand over the mouthpiece of her phone in case something else outrageous popped out. She had to get her mind off his pants!

    He chuckled. “Now I know you didn’t talk like that when you interviewed with us, Ms. Miles.”

    “Oh, but I did. Gloria Smith said you all needed some cheering up. ESS hired me to come in and clown around.”

    “Shouldn’t you be in marketing, then?”

    “Ouch!” Now she knew where he stood on the question of marketing. Her heart soared.

    “Hey, I could do this all day with you, but…”

    “I know. A manager’s work is never done. Listen, I was hoping we could go out after work tonight so I could hear more about, ah, what we were talking about at lunch.”

    “Sounds good. You have some place in mind?”

    She certainly couldn’t ask him to a bar, not after what he’d told her. Susan tried to think of a quiet spot where there was no liquor.

    He beat her to the punch. “How about the Java Jungle down the road? It’s pretty empty after six.”

    “Great idea!” She’d never been there, but she’d driven by it a million times.

    For the last couple of hours of the day, Susan worked on her help files in the software lab. The atmosphere was intense, with none of the usual bantering and goofing off. Six o’clock came and went, and nobody packed it in for the night. Susan had to get downstairs to meet Dave. On her way out, she stopped to chat with Alice, who was reviewing bug reports in her office right outside the lab.

    “What did you do to your people? I’ve never seen them like this.”

    Alice chuckled. “At that meeting this morning, Philip told the story of how he single-handedly coded the first version of Activity Tracker in two months when he was at MIT. Have you heard it yet?” Susan shook her head. “Well, I know it by heart. Anyway, for the first time ever, he finished this so-called motivational speech with a huge bang: he offered them a cash bonus if they finish the Carnival project early. So I think you’ll be seeing some ridiculously long hours in the next week, from them and the engineering team.”

    “Hey, I’m working on Carnival, and nobody said anything to me.” Susan scowled. “They never let the writers in on stuff like this.”

    “Join the club. Management isn’t eligible either.”

    “Of course not. All we get are the temper tantrums that inevitably occur when these guys don’t get enough downtime. I don’t want to offend you, but some of them don’t have great social skills even when they’re not under pressure.”

    “I hear you. But it’s not all bad news. Think about it. Why is Philip so anxious to bring in the project early?”

    Susan shrugged. “To drive us crazy?”

    Alice shook her head. “No, if he were messing with our heads, he wouldn’t offer cash. I think he’s trying to impress a new set of bankers."

    Susan remembered what Dave had said about the IPO the day she’d met Janet Morrison. “You think this means the company is getting ready to go public?”

    “It’s about time. There are some people here who think it should have happened a long time ago, that we missed our window of opportunity. They’re ready to jump ship, to start over somewhere new.”

    Huddled between a dry cleaner and a beauty salon, Java Jungle didn’t seem very special from the outside. Dave held the door open for Susan, and she went in. It was darker than she’d expected. Palm trees and bushy potted plants lined the walls and created private nooks for all the tables. Thumping native drums and twittering birds completed the jungle atmosphere.

    Dave’s hand settled lightly on her shoulder, steering her around a massive palm tree. He pointed toward the counter, disguised as a bamboo hut against the back wall.

    “Why don’t I order our coffee while you pick a table?”

    She asked for her usual, a tall, nonfat latte with no foam, and then wandered across the rough wood planking to find them a place to sit. Her shoulder tingled where he’d touched her. Oh man, why did he have to be an alcoholic? He was so perfect.

    The coffee shop was empty, except for a group of teenagers huddled over huge, steaming earthenware mugs in a booth that had been made from the shell of an old jeep.

    She chose a table hidden behind a bamboo screen. The rattan chairs were surprisingly comfortable. Susan found herself completely charmed. Maybe this is how people in AA date, she thought, since they certainly can’t go to a bar for a drink like everyone else.

    After a few minutes, Dave brought over two mugs. A whimsical brown picture of a leaf floated on the white surface of Susan’s latte. He explained that Java Jungle baristas prided themselves on the little works of art they created by mixing the espresso and foamed milk just right. When he tilted his cup toward her, she saw a lopsided star floating there.

    While she stirred a packet of raw sugar into her coffee, ruining the leafy picture, Dave started talking about Rebecca.

    “I didn’t get to know her until after she got back from treatment, so I can’t say what she was like when she was drinking. Maybe some of the people she worked with can give you that kind of information.”

    Susan nodded silently, determined to never let him know the mean things Patty had said.

    “Anyway, I dropped by her office on her first day back and gave her the local schedule of AA meetings.”

    This shocked her, since he’d been so reluctant to reveal his problem to her at lunch today. “Weren’t you taking a chance? What if she blabbed to everyone?”

    “My God, you’re suspicious.” He laughed. “It was obvious she wanted to stay sober, and she knew what anonymity meant. I was safer telling her than I was telling you.”

    He didn’t trust her? “I’m not going to say anything at work, Dave.”

    “I believe you. Anyway, I drove Rebecca to a meeting that night and introduced her to some of my friends.”

    Susan sipped her latte, nodding thoughtfully to encourage him to keep talking.

    He looked embarrassed. “The problem was, she was really pretty. I mean, she dressed funny, all in black, but she was still gorgeous. She had this delicate look, like she’d break if you looked at her wrong.”

    “Why was that a problem?” Susan tried to ignore the knot in her stomach. No one had called her delicate since she’d shot up a foot in junior high. She hoped Dave wasn’t into petite little child-women.

    “AA is like any other big group. Most of the people are really great.” He rubbed his fingers along the edge of the table. “But there are a few guys on the prowl for pretty newcomers…”

    His voice trailed off. She finished the thought for him, “They try to take advantage of them?”

    He nodded.

    “So did anyone bother her?” Susan leaned forward. Maybe some sex-crazed stalker had fixated on her at one of those meetings. He could have followed her to work and tried to molest her on the stairs.

    “Not that I know of. Even if they had, someone like that couldn’t get into our building. You need a badge.”

    “Hmmm.” It couldn’t be that hard to sneak into the building.

    “Anyway, my friend Eileen became her sponsor and--”

    “Hey, hey!” Susan held up a hand to stop him. “Can you do that? Tell me someone’s name like that? What about the anonymity thing?”

    He grinned. “There are probably a hundred thousand women named Eileen in the greater Seattle area. I think she’s safe.”

    “But what if I go to a party at your house and you introduce me to someone named Eileen? Then I’d know.” Oh God, now she was inviting herself over to his house. She was shameless. She had to stop flirting with him before he decided to take her up on what she was offering.

    He shook his head. “I personally know three women named Eileen.”

    “But do you know them well enough to invite them to a party?” His eyebrows rose, and she decided she didn’t want to hear his answer. “Forget it, Don Juan. Tell me more about Rebecca.”

    “She got into the habit of dropping by my office once a day to say hi, and we went to a couple of meetings together every week.”

    “Were you,” Susan tried to make the question sound casual, “dating her?”

    “God no!” He looked like he’d just tasted something terrible. “That would make me as bad as those animals I warned her against. I wouldn’t have done that. I was more like an older brother.”

    Relieved that he hadn’t been in love with Rebecca, she apologized for insulting him. “I’m sorry, Dave, I didn’t realize what I was saying.”

    “That’s okay. How would you know?” His easy smile was back in place. “Anyway, I’m not actually seeing anyone right now.”

    Goosebumps rose on Susan’s arms. Boy, that was an invitation if she’d ever heard one. That’s what she got for flirting with him. She sipped her latte and studiously avoided eye contact. If she wasn’t celibate, if he wasn’t an alcoholic, she would casually mention that she wasn’t actually seeing anyone right now, either.

    She cleared her throat, anxious to get the conversation back on track. “Did she have any friends outside of AA?”

    “I assumed she was a loner because she never talked about missing any drinking buddies. But she made a lot friends in AA. She was funny. You make someone laugh, and they want to hang out with you.”

    Rebecca sounded too good to be true. She had to have a dark side. Susan sighed. “Did she ever talk about people she didn’t like? Or people who didn’t like her?”

    He shifted in his seat. “She used to complain about the engineering team, but she did her best to get a long with people. If you’re asking if she knew someone was out to get her, I’d have to say no. At least, she didn’t say anything like that to me.”

    He was clearly uncomfortable, but she pressed him. “Who would she have talked to, then?”

    “In theory, she should have told her sponsor about anything that was bothering her.”

    “That’s your friend Eileen?”

    “Yes,” he said cautiously, crossing his arms.

    “Maybe I could meet her.” Eileen might hold the key to whatever had happened. Susan absolutely had to see her.

    “That might be okay.” He obviously didn’t share her enthusiasm. “I’d have to talk to her first.”

    She nodded, expecting him to call her now. When he didn’t go for the cell phone clipped to his belt, she thought about handing him hers. She resisted the urge. There was something delicious about a man she couldn’t rush. Susan looked down at the murky coffee left in her mug, wishing she’d gotten a decaf. She needed to calm down. What else could she ask him?

    “Was Rebecca dating anyone?”


    He said it so decisively, she couldn’t resist teasing him. “It’s okay if you’re not sure.”

    Dave smiled. “There’s kind of an unwritten rule in AA that you’re not supposed to get involved with anyone in your first year. It’s hard enough to put together a year of sobriety without the distraction of a relationship.”

    That sounded a lot like her own vow of celibacy. Susan bit her lip. This was her chance. If she told him about it, she would have to stop flirting with him--if that were possible! At least he’d realize that all this sexy banter wasn’t leading anywhere. The news would certainly dissuade him from taking her out to coffee and dropping any more hints about his availability. She could practically guarantee that she’d stay celibate until August. Her heart broke a little.

    “Hey, that’s a funny coincidence. I’m kind of in the middle of a year of something like that, refraining from any kind of, ah, personal entanglements.” An image of naked, entangled limbs came to mind, making her wish she’d just used the word “celibacy.”

    He grinned. “How’s it going?”

    “Just fine, thank you,” she said primly.

    His expression turned serious. “Bad relationship?”

    She nodded once. There was no way she was giving him details.

    His eyes met hers for a second, and she felt somehow comforted, as if he had imagined the worst and still liked her. He leaned back in his chair, putting a little more space between them. Something told her he wouldn’t have his hand on her shoulder when they left.

    “So what else can I tell you about Rebecca?”

    Steph sat on her sofa in a sexy black nightgown, matching peignoir, and fluffy pink bunny slippers. She’d been asleep when Susan had phoned from her car and asked if she could drop by to talk. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Susan pace back and forth across her tiny living room, wearing a path into the new wool rug from IKEA. Some people should not drink coffee at night.

    Killer was sprawled across her lap, with his claws hooked into the silky material of her gown. His head swung back and forth as he tracked Susan’s progress.

    Susan ran her hands through her already tangled hair and told Steph all about her conversations with Dave and his confession that he was a member of AA.

    “Wait a minute! Are you supposed to tell me that? Doesn’t anonymous mean it’s supposed to be a secret or something?”

    “He said not to mention it at work. He didn’t say not to tell anyone at all.”

    Steph shook her head. “I think you missed the point.”

    “Anyway, what do you think? He’s sure Rebecca wouldn’t have relapsed. He says she seemed fine.”

    Steph scratched behind her cat’s ears. She sincerely wished Susan would forget all about this Rebecca woman and her possible murder. The whole thing was just too frightening. Killer sank his front claws into her thigh and meowed a protest--Steph must have been petting him too hard. She lifted her hands, and he trotted away in a snit. She wished they had never found those stolen diamonds last summer. Susan had always been nosy; now she thought she was a real amateur detective.

    Sherlock tapped her foot impatiently.

    Steph sighed. “That newspaper article said she had drugs in her system. I don’t know why he can’t accept that. Maybe he feels guilty because hanging around with him wasn’t enough to keep her sober. Or maybe if he admits she relapsed when she seemed fine, that means he has to face the fact that he could relapse, too.”

    Susan shrugged and resumed pacing. “Obviously I don’t know him well enough to tell.”

    “You know, that’s a good point. You don’t know this guy. He could have pushed her down the stairs himself once he found out she’d dipped into some vet’s medicine cabinet.”

    Susan laughed. “No way. He’s one of the good guys. He’s a friend of Roger’s, for God’s sake.”

    Steph crossed her arms. “Oh, there’s a character reference that carries a lot of weight.”

    “Come on, Steph.” Susan dropped onto the sofa next to Steph. “Please help me.”

    Steph endured about ten seconds of Susan’s sad, pleading face before throwing her hands in the air. “All right, all right. Let me think. Tell me again why he didn’t think the woman who sent those threatening notes had something to do with it? Because she moved to California?”

    “Yes. Dave and Mark both seemed sure that she was out of the picture.”

    “That’s just plain dumb. California isn’t all that far away. She could have flown here in a couple of hours.”

    “I know.” Susan’s tone made it clear Steph was preaching to the choir.

    “If she didn’t want to have to show ID to get on a plane, she could have driven here. Not as fast, but more private.”

    “I could ask around, see what else I can learn about her. Maybe Patty knows something.”

    Steph grinned. “The gossipy cheerleader? I bet she can tell you who the editor was sleeping with.”


    Chapter 12


    Susan poked her head into Patty’s cube. It was empty, but a note pinned to her chair indicated that Patty was in the library. Susan turned around and headed back down the hall. She had just walked by there and it had been empty.

    This time, she looked behind the row of short bookcases that separated the library area from the hallway. Patty was kneeling on the floor with an armload of books ESS had published.

    “Hey, what are you doing down there?”

    “Hi, Susan.” Patty slid the books into a gap on the shelf and sat back on her heels. “I’m putting the manuals in numerical order. Then I’m going to see what’s missing and write up an order.”

    “Do you want some help?”


    “Good, because I’ve been reading about HTML all morning, and I’ll go crazy if I don’t take a break.”

    Patty nodded sympathetically, then rose gracefully from the floor. She was wearing a loose cotton tunic and matching pants in a somber Indian print.

    “You can read the numbers off the manuals on the shelf, and I’ll check them off on this master list. Okay?”

    Susan agreed and dragged a chair over to the bookcase. She pulled the first book from the shelf and read the part number off the front cover.


    “Got it. Next?”


    While Patty looked for the number on her list, Susan said casually, “I heard something interesting this morning. I was talking to Mark, and he said you guys used to have an editor in the department.”

    Patty looked up from the list, a curious expression on her face. “Yeah, we did. Mary Ann Cross. She was wonderful.” The way Patty rolled the word wonderful off her tongue, it was almost as if she were describing the tastiest dessert she’d ever eaten. “But she left five months ago. How did she come up?”

    “I asked Mark who could edit my final draft. We started talking about editors and her name came up.”

    Patty seemed satisfied by the answer. “Pull that book off the shelf. We published a new version of it, and I’ll have to order one.”

    Susan read the next part number and watched Patty scan the list. “So what was Mary Ann like? It’s funny that ESS never hired anyone to replace her.”

    Patty made a check mark on the list and put down her pen. “She was a great editor. I learned a lot from her. She really whipped this department into shape.”

    “Sounds like you miss her.”

    “Yeah, but I can’t help being happy for her. That Hollywood deal was a dream come true. She was a great writer, a fiction writer, not what we do.”

    “So she’s working at some Hollywood studio?”

    “Yeah. The project is in some kind of idea phase. And,” she looked around to make sure no one was listening, “don’t tell anyone this, but she promised me a job when the show comes through.”

    Patty was practically trembling with excitement.

    “Wow, that’s great. You’d go to California?”

    “I’d follow her to New York if that’s where she went. She’s a great person, really deep and creative.” Patty blushed, then her voice took on a businesslike tone. “What’s the next part number?”

    Patty seemed embarrassed by her display of what? Affection? She’d probably revealed more than she had intended to. Susan figured she should change the subject.

    “It must have been an adjustment when the editor left.”

    “You’re not kidding. Now we edit each other’s stuff and more mistakes slip through. Some people who are rebellious do their own thing and no one is there to make them toe the line.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Oh, like how Ted and Ed are always shrinking the blank space between paragraphs to make things fit on a page. Their manuals are so nonstandard.”

    Susan nodded and pretended to agree. This woman had serious control issues. She glanced around for a safe topic. For the first time, she noticed a tall, glass display case against the wall. It was partially filled with photographs and battered software boxes.

    “What’s with that glass case?”

    “That,” Patty snorted, “was Rebecca’s pet project. She was supposed to sort through the piles of old stuff in the storage closet and put together a display of the company’s historical artifacts. She talked her way into the project because she’d spent a year as an intern at some big museum in Chicago.” Patty crossed her arms. “Of course she didn’t finish.”

    Being dead probably had something to do with that. But Susan didn’t say anything aloud. There was no use alienating Patty. Instead, she pulled the next manual from the shelf and read the part number aloud.

    It was almost two o’clock when her growling stomach finally made Susan look up from the HTML code she was working on for the Salmon web page. She had missed lunch. She stretched, trying to relieve the ache in her shoulders from hunching over her keyboard for so long.

    This was a good sign, getting lost in her work like that. Nothing had distracted her, not worries about Rebecca, fantasies about Dave, or plans to spend what was left from her first paycheck.

    After she logged off the network, she headed upstairs, where a frozen lasagna was waiting for her in the freezer.

    The elevator and hallways were empty. It was long past lunchtime for most folks, which was good since she thought this frozen dinner was going to take something ridiculous like twelve minutes to microwave. You couldn’t do that when a bunch of people were lined up waiting to nuke their lunches, too.

    “I said no!”

    The shout came from the coffee room. Somebody was pretty mad about something. Susan peeked in.

    Ken was nose to nose with the test engineer with the gray elf’s beard--wasn’t his name Rick? She’d met him when Alice showed her that sign about tipping the soda machines. He held a small black plate that looked like something a frozen lunch came in.

    “Come on, Rick.” Ken reached for the plate.

    Snap! Rick broke it in half. His face was red. “This is ridiculous,” he muttered as he threw the plastic pieces into the trash can. He walked angrily out of the room with his beaded keychain flapping against his leg.

    Susan stepped out of his way.

    Ken stared into the trash can for a few seconds. Then he wandered out, not seeming to even notice Susan standing near the door.

    What the hell was that about? Susan walked over to the garbage and peered in, hoping there would be something special about the broken plate to explain their apparent struggle over ownership. Nope. Nestled in with everyone else’s lunchtime trash, the two black chunks of plastic didn’t look the least bit special.

    At Wolff, she’d seen two hardware engineers get into a shoving match over a soldering iron. At Web-Tech, she’d seen a marketing intern burst into tears when management gave her laptop to someone else. But no one had ever fought over garbage before.

    When Ken had dropped by her office, he had taken that pile of black plastic comb bindings from her and said he was going to recycle them. Maybe he wanted to recycle Rick’s lunch plate, too. The question was, why didn’t Rick want Ken to recycle it? He certainly looked like an earthy, crunchy, environmental type.

    As she popped her lunch into the microwave, she noticed that it was in the same kind of dish. She set the timer for twelve minutes, wondering what she would do if Ken came back and asked if he could have her plate.

    The morning’s newspaper was spread out on the lunch table. Susan found the page with the funnies and leaned over the table to read them.

    A few minutes later, someone entered the room, and Susan looked up to make sure it wasn’t one of The Tray Boys. It wasn’t. The guy was tall and skinny with a neatly trimmed goatee. She had seen him around but had never spoken to him. She nodded hello and went right back to the comics. She heard him walk to the refrigerator and then to the microwave. Obviously he was going to nuke his dinner too.

    She turned. “I’m sorry, but my lasagna is going to take at least five more minutes.”

    He was standing by the microwave, smiling and gripping a brown paper sack. “That’s okay, I can wait.”

    Susan smiled weakly and turned back to the newspaper. There was something about him, an eagerness, that made her think he was a geek ready to mate. It was kind of rude to ignore him, but she didn’t want to give him the wrong idea.

    “Um, excuse me again.”

    She turned back to him, injecting a hint of coldness into her tone. “Yes?”

    He stuck out his hand. “I don’t think we’ve actually met. I’m Jeff Davies. I’m coding the database routines for Activity Tracker.”

    His cotton shirt had been ironed, and he wore a wedding ring on his left hand. This man was obviously married, and the missus took good care of him. Susan had totally misread his interest.

    She smiled warmly to make up for her rudeness. “I’m Susan Miles, the new--”

    “Tech writer. I know. You sort of replaced Rebecca didn’t you?”

    She nodded ruefully. “Did you know her well?”

    “We were friends. She used to rewrite all my error messages for me, even though she was never officially assigned to any of my projects.” Jeff sounded wistful. “Rebecca was great at error messages. I miss her.”

    They bobbed their heads in that way people do when talking about something awkward with a stranger.

    Susan tried to think of something soothing to say. “It’s difficult when people we like aren’t around anymore.” She winced. That was terrible, something you’d say about a person who left for a better job. But Jeff didn’t seem to take offense.

    “Were you surprised by what happened? That she got high here at work?”

    “Totally shocked.” He held his hands out, palms up. “Didn’t see it coming at all.”

    “She wasn’t upset about anything?”

    He tugged his goatee. “Well, she was kind of moody, crying Friday, cheerful Monday.”

    “Why was she crying?”

    “She said one of the guys reemed her out over some pictures in her book. She went home early Friday. She must have had a good weekend because she came in Monday as cheerful as ever.”

    This had to be the artwork problem Susan had uncovered in Appendix A. “Did she say who yelled at her?”

    “Nope. Hey, listen, would you be interested in rewriting some error messages for me?”

    “Sure, I can do that.” She would have volunteered to wash his car to keep him talking. “I’ll probably have time once the Salmon beta test starts next week.”

    “Fantastic. I’ll email you a text file with what I’ve got so far.”

    The microwave beeped, interrupting them. The lasagna was bubbling hot, and Susan grabbed a clump of paper towels so she wouldn’t burn her fingers carrying it back to her office. “Well, the kitchen is all yours. See you later.”

    As she walked back to her closet of an office, she reviewed her first impression of Jeff. He seemed pretty nice, low key. She’d really misread his eagerness, though. She’d have to watch out for that.

    Ken walked into the small conference room five minutes late for the weekly status meeting and sat across from Susan. He looked at the empty seat at the head of the table, where Tom’s notebook and coffee cup were, and then he looked at Susan.

    “Tom got beeped. He said to wait here for him,” she explained.

    Ken opened his notebook and slid some papers across the table to Susan. It was the printout she’d given him to double check.

    “I found punctuation errors.” There was more than a hint of smugness in his tone.

    “Really?” Susan flipped through the pages quickly, positive that she hadn’t made any punctuation mistakes. Ken had circled every spot where she had omitted a serial comma. There were no other marks on the printout.

    It was common practice in tech writing to omit the comma right before the word “and” in a series, such as “hardware, software and manuals.” All the ESS manuals Susan had looked at followed that rule. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t add those commas just to make him happy. But she wasn’t going to tell him that. If it gave him a charge to think he was right, that was fine with her. Maybe it would make him more cooperative.

    “What about all the technical changes you asked me to make? Did you catch anything that seemed unclear or incorrect?”

    He shook his head.

    That was great news. “Thanks for doing such a thorough job, Ken.”

    She smiled warmly at him. He looked away, embarrassed, and pulled a large pink eraser from his pocket. He leaned over and began erasing the random ink and pencil marks marring the table’s surface. She watched him in silence for a few minutes. Ken obviously wasn’t much for small talk.

    After he’d cleaned off the area around his notebook, Ken carefully brushed all the pink crumbs into a neat pile.

    “Do you know who made Rebecca Cafferty cry the Friday before she fell down the stairs?”

    He dropped the eraser. “How would I know?”

    “I heard that one of the engineers was upset with the book she put out for review, and yelled at her.” Susan shrugged. “Eventually I’m going to have to put a book out for review. I’d just like to know who to watch out for.”

    Ken slammed his notebook and stood up. “I don’t have time to sit around gossiping like an old lady. Tom knows where to find me.”

    He stalked out of the conference room.

    Susan stared after him. Everyone else had been eager to talk about Rebecca, but Ken hadn’t liked it both times she’d brought up her name. Maybe he was the one who’d made her cry. He certainly wasn’t the most charming reviewer she’d ever worked with. Either way, it didn’t mean much. He might just be feeling guilty over having upset the woman right before she died.

    “Patty, I have to leave now to pick up my kids from the babysitter. There’s no way I can stay late tonight to fix this. You’re the only one here who can help me!”

    Mark sounded angry, as if he were done trying to reason with Patty. Susan looked up from what she was reading in the little conference room near the writers’ cubicles. She hadn’t wanted to eavesdrop, but they were really starting to get loud out there. They didn’t seem to realize anyone was around to hear them.

    There was a loud crackling thump. Susan jumped, wondering what it was.

    “Stop pressuring me, Mark. My wrists hurt. I’ve already done too much today. This is your project--it’s your problem. You can’t stick me with extra work because you have kids in daycare and I don’t. ”

    Patty’s voice had a whiny quality that made Susan’s hand itch to slap her. The woman might be in pain, but she didn’t have to be rude about it. Writers were supposed to stick together, to protect each other from failure so that the sharks in other departments never even had the chance to smell blood in the water.

    Mark muttered something Susan couldn’t hear. She stood up. She wasn’t doing anything that couldn’t wait, so she could volunteer to help him.

    But they’d know she’d been eavesdropping if she stepped in now. She hesitated, then shrugged. It wasn’t her fault they were acting like idiots. When she stepped into the hall, she could see Mark blocking the doorway to Patty’s cube.

    Susan cleared her throat. “Maybe I can help.”

    He jumped back. “Susan, I didn’t know you were still here.”

    “I was in the conference room reading, and I overheard you say you needed a hand.”

    She walked to the cube, and Mark stepped back. Susan looked in. Patty was sitting in her fancy chair, leaning against the high back. She was wearing her wrist braces and holding a bag of ice against one of her wrists. The sound Susan had heard must have been her slamming the bag against her desk to break up the ice.

    “There you go, Mark. Susan can help you.” Patty’s voice was peevish. “Now will the two of you get out of my cube?”

    Mark’s face reddened. He headed for his cubicle, and Susan followed. The Patty she had just seen hardly resembled the bouncy person who had welcomed her to ESS. Either she was in a ridiculous amount of pain and needed some Percodan, or she had some kind of mood disorder and needed Prozac. Susan filed the information away in her head. She’d keep this in mind when dealing with Patty.

    Once they were settled in his cube, not ten feet from Patty’s, Mark seemed to collect himself. “I’m sorry about that. I’m really angry at the engineer who caused this mess, not at Patty.”

    He pointed to a stack of thin manuals on his desk and explained that they were training manuals for the newest version of Activity Tracker, and they were supposed to be sent to a company in Las Vegas in the morning for a class.

    “At the last possible minute, I found out that one of the engineers changed all the user interface screens.” He shook his head in frustration. “We had code freeze a week ago, but this hotshot decided to work all night and improve things.”

    “They can’t make him switch it back? That’s what source control is for.”

    Mark slumped in his chair. “The changes were good. No one wants to go back.”

    She nodded. She’d been in similar situations. It wasn’t fair, but it was life.

    “So here’s the deal.” He glanced at his watch. “I should have left five minutes ago to pick up my kids. I can’t work tonight.”

    “What do you want me to do?”

    He handed her a disk. “The new screens are on this disk. All you have to do is go through my files, delete the old screens, and paste in the new ones. I’ve already rewritten all the instructions that were affected.”

    That was simple enough. She could guess the rest. “Then I make twenty new copies of the manual?”

    He nodded. “Elaine Howard expects to find the manuals on the receptionist’s desk downstairs at 5:30 tomorrow morning. She’s going to swing by here on her way to the airport.”

    She made sure she knew where his files were and which printer his PC was connected to, and then she told him to leave. “Don’t worry, this is basic stuff. I’ve got it under control.”

    Mark grabbed his gym bag and fished his car keys out of his desk drawer. He grinned for the first time. “Thanks a lot. I owe you one.”

    “No problem, Mark. Just go, your kids are waiting.” He left, and Susan spun around in his chair. She had work to do.

    Mark’s project took a little over an hour, and then Susan went straight home. She sat on the kitchen counter, sipping a dark beer, while Steph and Chris chopped veggies and chicken for supper. They were crowded at the small counter near the stovetop because Susan was taking up most of the counter space by sitting on it.

    “Hey, you guys need more room? I could move.” Susan made the offer reluctantly, swinging her feet, careful not to kick the cabinet doors. She loved sitting on the counter. The aerial view was the best.

    “That’s okay,” Steph said. “You can wash the dishes to make up for it.”

    The back door swung open with a surge of cold air, and Roger came in carrying his briefcase and trench coat. “Everyone’s home? Are we having a party?”

    “Yeah, a dinner party.” Chris held up a bag of Japanese noodles. “Yakisoba in fifteen minutes.”

    “Excellent.” Roger loosened his tie. “That gives me just enough time to take out the trash before dinner.” He glanced at Susan meaningfully and pointed toward the ceiling. “Have you had a chance to…?”

    “I’m on it,” Susan assured him as she slid off the counter. She trotted upstairs, shaking her head. This was the one drawback of living with men. They were so freaked out about her bathroom trash. Roger almost had a stroke the first time he saw a box of tampons in the cabinet under the sink. To keep the peace, she’d agreed to collect all the garbage from the second floor.

    Susan grabbed her wicker wastebasket as she passed her room. It was overflowing because she’d cleaned out her desk and bureau last night.

    In the cheerful yellow bathroom they all shared, Susan pulled the half-full plastic bag from the trashcan, dumped the contents of her wastebasket in, and knotted the bag shut. Unfortunately, the white plastic was a little too transparent for poor Roger. From the cabinet under the sink, she grabbed a large black trash bag and dropped the little white bag into it. Now the delicate men were safe from the horror of seeing anything even remotely feminine in the garbage.

    She dragged the black trash bag into Roger’s bedroom and collected a huge clump of shredded paper from his fancy leather garbage can. Ever since he’d heard about criminals stealing people’s identities and ruining their credit, he’d been shredding everything. She’d teased him about it, suggesting that he shred his empty Pop Tarts boxes so “they” wouldn’t find out about his appalling eating habits.

    Chris’s green plastic trash can was on his desk, and she heard the tinkling of small plastic parts as she dumped it into her bag. He must have given up on the model submarine he’d been trying to build. She was relieved, because last week she’d found his trash can accidentally glued to the carpet.

    Susan tied a knot in the black trash bag and slung it over her shoulder. All these layers of plastics couldn’t be good for the environment. To make up for it, she promised herself she’d buy paper towels and toilet paper made with recycled materials the next time it was her turn to shop, no matter how much extra they cost.

    When she returned to the kitchen, which was steamy with the mouth-watering fragrance of stir-fried chicken, Susan found Roger grumbling over the recycle bins. He picked a few crushed cardboard boxes out of the glass bin and dropped them into the paper bin.

    “It’s not a complicated system. I wish you people would pay more attention to this.”

    Steph and Chris were busy at the wok, not even listening. Susan grinned at Roger. You wouldn’t think such a fussy guy would like trash duty, but it had been his chore as long as she’d been living here. Seeing him fret over the recycle bins made it clear why.

    She dropped her trash bag onto the deck and then held the kitchen door open for him when he went out carrying the first bin. He made such a production out of the trash. It usually took him three trips to the curb to get it all out.

    It was pitch dark out, so she flipped the outside lights on. She heard him call, “Thanks!” from the vicinity of the walkway.

    Back in the kitchen, Susan helped Steph set the table. She resisted the urge to comment on Steph’s unprecedented display of domesticity.

    Steam was billowing from the wok. Chris stirred everything with a long handled wooden spoon. “So, Susan, do you feel safe at this job?”

    Steph must have told him what was going on at ESS. Sometimes she just couldn’t keep a secret. Susan glared at her best friend, who simply shrugged. She decided to pretend to misunderstand him.

    “Of course I feel safe.” She pointed to the badge clipped to her belt. “We have badges, and the parking lot is well lit. It’s a very safe environment.”

    Chris raised an eyebrow. “Even though you’re conducting some kind of amateur murder investigation?”

    Susan shook her head in exasperation. These people had no faith in her. “I’ve been poking around very gently. I’m telling you, no one even knows I suspect anything.”


    Chapter 13


    Susan waved at Martha as she breezed through the lobby. She’d picked up a box of donuts on her way in. She planned to bribe Tom and Ken with treats to get them to answer some questions for her, and she’d bring the rest to Alice’s lab. Everyone there had been so nice.

    When she stepped into the closet and flipped the switch for the light, she stopped short. She had expected to see the bare, fake woodgrain surface of her desk but it was covered with stuff. Crumbled paper, small crumbled cardboard boxes… Trash. Someone had dumped a pile of trash on her desk.

    Her eyes adjusted, seeing individual items. A small, pale green plastic compact stood out from the rest. It looked just like the dried-up eyeshadow she’d thrown out the other night.

    This was her personal trash. Susan went cold. She backed away from the desk, banging into the wall behind her. Roger had dragged the garbage can out to the curb last night right before dinner, and some sick bastard had raided it.

    “Goddamn it,” she breathed. “I guess I must be on to something.”

    She forced herself to look at the items. Shreds of yellow credit card receipts mingled with dirty cotton balls and an empty bottle of her favorite moisturizer. A crushed tube of antifungal cream had to be Chris or Roger’s. Yards of dental floss wove in and out of the mess. Thank God she hadn’t had her period this week.

    Obviously, someone was trying to tell her to mind her own business. “Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.” Susan shook her head. How many times had she heard that as a kid? But other people’s secrets had always fascinated her.

    Her snooping around must not have been as discreet as she’d thought. Clearly, she had managed to tick someone off. On the bright side, this meant she was on the right track. If Rebecca had really died in an accident, then no one would care about Susan asking questions.

    She had to consider the possibility that this wasn’t connected to Rebecca’s death. Susan frowned. This was a pretty hostile, gross thing to do. No one at ESS seemed capable of this. Maybe if you didn’t like someone, you threw away all their printouts before they had a chance to pick them up, or you dumped their office trash can on the desk. But she’d never heard of anyone going to this extreme.

    Roger was pretty obsessed with the garbage and the recycling bins at home, but he was completely squeamish about her bathroom trash. He also didn’t have a badge to get into the building.

    Susan’s hand flew to the badge clipped at her waist. That’s right, you had to scan your badge to get into the building.

    On her first day, she had wondered if the company kept track of the badge numbers read by the scanner at the front door. She had been so worried about making a good impression, trying to figure out the best way to impress people here, and if showing up early and leaving late would buy her anything. That seemed like a million years ago.

    If ESS did collect badge numbers, maybe she could find out who’d been here this morning. Or last night, she corrected herself. Roger had dragged the trash outside around eight.

    Dave could help her. She looked at her watch. It was only a quarter past eight. He never got in this early. Andy would be there, though. He seemed like a good guy: he’d always been very friendly, and he lived with a lady cop. She should be able to trust him.

    Susan took a step toward the door and kicked something. It was her box of donuts. She must have dropped it when she’d come in and seen the mess on her desk. None of the pastry had fallen out. She put the box on the filing cabinet. Bribing reviewers would have to wait, especially if there was a chance she might unknowingly give a donut to the scumbag who did this. The idea made her want to chuck the box.

    In the doorway, she looked back and realized she couldn’t leave the mess on her desk. With her luck, today would be the day someone finally wandered down the hallway and looked into her office. Susan grabbed the metal waste can and swept everything into it, making a mental note to wash her hands before she did anything else. She stuck the full can out of sight on the other side of the desk.

    Then something came over her, and she kicked the can as hard as she could. It bounced against the side of her desk with a loud metallic clang. Her toe throbbed, but she felt better.

    As she strode toward the IT department, an unsettling question brought her to an abrupt halt in the middle of the hallway. Wouldn’t the culprit keep an eye out for her, to see how effective the threat had been? In that case, maybe she shouldn’t be storming down the hall like an avenging god. Maybe she should try to look rattled. Susan bit her lip, not sure which strategy was best.

    Although foot traffic was light at this time of day, a few people had to veer around her. A frazzled secretary-type with an armload of paperwork glared at her. Susan let herself drift down the hallway, off to the side, out of the way, as she weighed her options. Acting scared would make her feel like a loser, but what would it do to the trash man? He might be satisfied and leave her alone--or he might be inflamed and start stalking her full time. At this point, she didn’t have enough information to make a good decision. She sighed. She’d have to act natural until she came up with a better plan.

    Andy was sitting at the help desk when she slipped through the double doors into the IT department. He looked up and smiled at her.

    “I need your help. Someone left a mess in my office last night--”

    He jumped to his feet. “I’m so sorry. Let me help you clean it up.”

    There was no way she was going to let him see her personal trash. “No, no, I already cleaned it up.”

    “Well, I’m really sorry. I didn’t even know she’d gotten out.”

    “You know who did it?” Her voice rose. He’d better not tell her there was a creep here who routinely pulled crap like this on new people.

    “Ah, yeah.” He looked confused. “There’s only one possible culprit.”

    Impatient, she snapped, “What do you mean?”

    “Look, I’m sorry you found a mess in your office.” Andy was getting mad. “Sometimes Lucky sneaks out and can’t get back to her litter box. I try really hard--”

    Susan laughed. “I’m sorry, I’m not talking about cat poop. Some person did something gross in my office.”

    Andy dropped into his chair, suddenly pale. “Was it a guy?” It was clear he meant bodily fluids.

    “No!” She’d better give him a few details to derail his overactive imagination. “Someone went to my house, stole stuff from my garbage can, and spread it out on my desk.”


    “Tell me about it.”

    “How can I help you?”

    She unclipped her badge and dangled it in front of him. “Can you get me a list of everyone who came into the building in the last twelve hours?”

    Andy nodded reluctantly. “I guess so, but wouldn’t it be better if you went to talk to HR?”

    Susan crossed her arms. “No. I’m going to find out who did this.”

    He looked at her for a few seconds as if waiting for her to change her mind, but Susan held her ground. HR hadn’t helped Rebecca. She was going to track down the person who did this and-- Well, she didn’t know what she’d do yet, but he or she wouldn’t touch her garbage again.

    Andy finally shrugged and started typing. After a few minutes, he pointed to a laser printer across the room as it hummed to life and spat out a sheet.

    “The list isn’t going to be much help,” he warned. “The log only captures the name of the person whose badge is swiped. You won’t be able to tell if one person held the door open and let six more in.”

    “It’ll give me somewhere to start.” Susan picked up the page from the output tray. There were about ten names on the list, and they were listed chronologically.

    Andy kept trying to convince her that the list was useless. “And you know you only have to use a badge to get in from seven at night until eight in the morning. When Martha gets here, she unlocks the door and kind of guards the lobby.”

    Susan studied the log printout. The first two entries showed Martha coming in at 7:14 p.m. and 7:18 p.m. last night. She held out the paper so Andy could see it.

    “Is this a mistake? How could she come in twice?”

    “There were a lot of people working last night, so Martha made a dinner run. I’d say it took her two trips to bring in all the food.”

    Susan pictured tiny little Martha dragging in bags of takeout food and running out to her car for a second load. “That makes sense. You don’t swipe your badge as you leave.”

    “Right. But you don’t think Martha did it?” It was clear from his tone that he thought the idea was crazy.

    Susan shook her head. “Of course not. My garbage didn’t go out till eight last night.”

    They both looked at the list. Andy’s name was next, coming in at 9:59 p.m. He was followed by Alex Mazukin at 10:04 p.m. Susan shot him a questioning look, even though she was sure he hadn’t touched her trash.

    Andy put his hands up as if she’d pointed a gun at him. “I didn’t do it. I had to work last night. Alex and I were installing some patches to the networking software. Alex is cool. He’s Russian.”

    “Did you let anyone come in with you? Did you see anyone in the lobby??”

    “Oh, huh, like maybe I witnessed something?” Andy’s scrunched up his forehead in a frown. After a few seconds, he said, “Nope. It was dead quiet. I didn’t see anybody until Alex joined me here.”

    “Is Alex around? Maybe he saw someone.”

    “He’ll be in this afternoon. Why don’t you let me ask him, though? He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t like to answer questions about what he’s seen or heard.” Andy shrugged. “I just assume it’s from stuff that happened to him back home.”

    Even though this had nothing to do with her current problem, the idea fascinated Susan. “Really? Was he interrogated by the KGB or something?”

    Andy shrugged. “I don’t know. He doesn’t volunteer anything, and he doesn’t invite questions, if you get what I mean.”

    The next name on the list was Taylor Ackerly. Susan had found his resume in her in-basket. They must have hired the kid in the mailroom. He came in at 5:48 a.m. today. That meant no one else entered ESS last night. Susan caught the error in her thinking. No one else swiped his or her badge on the way in last night. Any number of people could have come in if someone on the inside opened the door. That was highly possible, since Andy had said lots of people were working that night. As each of them left, they could have held the door open for someone coming in. Of course, it would have to be someone they recognized.

    “Andy, how could I find out who worked late last night?”

    “I’d start with Martha. She has to know who’s here so she can order the right amount of food.”


    They went back to the list. Bunny Warren and Kirk Conyers had come in at 5:50 and 5:59 a.m., right after Taylor.

    Andy tapped the paper. “Taylor, Bunny, and Kirk work in the mailroom.”

    Finally at the bottom of the list were names Susan recognized. Ken had come in at 6:05 a.m., Mark had come in at 6:07 a.m., and Patty had come in at 6:30 a.m. Mark was the only one she’d feel comfortable talking to; the other two had to be treated like suspects.

    Susan folded the list and tucked it into her jeans pocket. Andy had been right. This log file wasn’t as helpful as she’d hoped.

    “Whoever did this had to be carrying some kind of bag. Is there a video of the lobby I can watch?”


    She threw her hands up. “We have a video camera constantly monitoring the freaking coffee pot, but we don’t have any surveillance of the front door?”

    “You’re absolutely right. Our priorities suck.”

    His sincerity defused her anger. Susan put her hand on Andy’s arm. “Would you do me a favor and not tell anyone about this?”

    “You bet.”

    “Thanks, Andy.”

    “What are you going to do now?”

    She shrugged. “I guess I’ll work my way through the list and see who acts guilty. And when Dave finally gets here, would you tell him I need to talk to him?”

    Mark wasn’t in his cube, the coffee room, the library or the copy room. Susan hung around outside the men’s bathroom for a few minutes, but he didn’t come out of there, either. She bit her lip, wondering if the universe was trying to tell her she was being foolish. Maybe she ought to go sit in her closet for a while and think about it. As she waited for the elevator, she peeked over the tops of the row of bookshelves that formed the outer wall of the library, in case he was sitting on the floor. She’d found Patty that way, once. No such luck this time.

    The elevator doors opened, revealing Mark Eastman slumped against the back wall of the elevator car, dressed in black bicycle shorts and a black and green striped t-shirt. Susan grinned. The universe delivers!

    Mark limped out, favoring his left knee, which was scraped and bloody.

    Susan’s elation turned to concern. “Are you okay, Mark? What happened?”

    “I took a spill on the way in. It’s no big deal, but I figured I’d better do something to head off the swelling.” He gestured with the small bag of frozen peas he was carrying. “This was the best I could do at the mini-mart on the corner.”

    “I hate to impose, but can I talk to you for a minute in private?”

    His whole demeanor changed, becoming more businesslike. “Of course.” He winced, spoiling the effect. “I have to get off my knee, though. How much privacy do you need? We could sit at the table over there. No one would be able to hear us as long as we keep our voices down.”

    He led the way around the wall of bookcases. His limp became more pronounced with every step. That trip to the mini-mart had apparently wiped him out. Susan would have to settle for a quiet chat at the library conference table, unless she wanted to actually carry him somewhere more private.

    Mark sat down, and his breath hissed as he lifted his knee onto another chair. “I shouldn’t have waited this long to get some ice on it.”

    She sat across from him, with her back to the wall so she could see the whole library area and down the hall in both directions. She’d know if anyone tried to eavesdrop. She kept her voice low as she asked, “Can I ask you a couple of really weird questions? Without asking me why I need to know?”

    He grimaced as he settled the bag of peas on his knee, but there was a glimmer of amusement in his voice. “Listen, I’ve got a seven and a nine year old at home. I’m used to weird questions.”

    “Well, here goes. When you came in this morning, did you see anyone go into the building?”

    “Yeah. Philip Corbin and Ken Chan.” He sounded annoyed. “They walked in just before me. I yelled for Ken to hold the door, but he didn’t. And I had blood running down my damned leg!”

    Philip! He hadn’t been on the list.

    “Were they carrying anything?”

    Mark tilted his head, staring off into space for a few seconds before answering. “Yeah. Philip had his CIA briefcase, and Ken had a black gym bag. They each had one of those white Styrofoam food containers you get as a doggy bag these days.” Mark shrugged. “It looked like they had gone out to breakfast together.”

    “Did you see anyone else?”

    He shook his head. “I didn’t.”

    “All right, then. Thank you.” She stood up.

    “That’s what you wanted to know?” He sounded incredulous.

    She nodded.

    “And you’re really not going to tell me why?”

    Susan shrugged. “Maybe someday. Listen, if you can’t ride your bike home tonight, I’d be happy to drive you.”

    Not sure exactly what approach she’d take with Patty, Susan cruised over to her cube and peeked in. The cheerleader from hell wasn’t there, but an empty paper shopping bag from Nordstrom’s sat on the floor next to the desk. The inside of the bag looked clean, but that didn’t mean anything.

    Susan checked her watch. She could spend all day poking around for suspicious containers, but she had to get some work done. If she buckled down, she was sure she could finish revising chapter four of the Price Tag Designer manual today.

    Nobody wants to read the instructions for anything these days, and tech writers know it. The knowledge eats away at them as they slave to create numbered procedures and bulleted lists that no one will ever appreciate. But sometimes, there comes a chapter that’s loaded with artwork and sprinkled with text, a chapter that grabs the reader by the throat and gives them exactly what they need to know--and not one word more.

    Chapter four was like that, Susan thought. She stood in front of the laser printer, patiently capturing each page as it slid into the output tray. Her chapter was so perfect, she expected the machine to burst into flames.

    “Come with me!”

    Dave was there suddenly, grabbing her hand and dragging her down the hallway toward the fire door.

    Bemused, she let him pull her down the hall. Until now, the man had been the epitome of courtesy. This was an exhilarating new aspect of his personality. Susan lost her grip on her printout, and the pages floated to the floor, leaving a trail halfway down the hall.

    “Hey, my chapter!”

    “I’ll help you pick it up when we’re finished,” he said through clenched teeth.

    So he was a caveman with manners.

    He pushed through both doors until they stepped out into the smoking area. A stout young man with a green streak in his hair sat on one of the picnic tables. A cigarette dangled from his lip.

    Dave growled, “Shouldn’t you be working?” and the kid scrambled off the table and flew into the building with his cigarette.

    They were alone.

    He dropped her hand and glared down at her. “Are you crazy?”

    She raised her eyebrows, about to comment on his shocking lack of propriety. Whoever that kid was, he’d tell everyone that the IT manager was manhandling some woman out by the picnic tables. Then it hit her. Andy must have talked to him about the garbage on her desk.

    “Andy told you!” That secret hadn’t lasted long. But she wasn’t mad. She’d been planning on telling Dave the good news as soon as she’d had the chance.

    “Of course he told me. This is serious.”

    She grinned at him. “It is serious, isn’t it? It proves that we’re onto something.”

    His eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute, you’re excited about this?”

    “Of course I am! The person who dumped trash on my desk must have been involved in whatever happened to Rebecca. I have to find out who did it!”

    Dave crossed his arms. “No. This is too dangerous.”

    She mimicked him, crossing her arms and scowling. “You can’t tell me no.”

    He groaned in frustration and before Susan knew what had happened, she found herself pressed against the cold brick wall of the building with Dave’s hands clamped on her shoulders.

    He leaned toward her and ground out, “This is not a game. Whoever did this killed Rebecca! I can’t let anything happen to you, too.”

    His eyes locked on hers, and she could feel the frustration coming off him in waves of heat. Susan lifted her hands to his chest and pushed. He didn’t budge. His glance slid down toward her mouth. She pushed harder, ducking her head so he couldn’t kiss her. This certainly wasn’t the way she’d pictured their first kiss.

    “Hey, now,” she said briskly, “let go of me, man.”

    His fingers shifted on her shoulders, but he didn’t let go. She wasn’t sure he’d heard her.

    “Come on, Dave.” She raised her voice in command. “Let go of me. Now.”

    His grip loosened, and he stroked the area he’d been holding, as if afraid he’d bruised her. She could see the red flush creeping up his neck. He stepped back.

    Susan stayed where she was, letting the building hold her up.

    “I’m sorry I grabbed you like that. I won’t do it again.” His eyes met hers for a moment only, and then he shook his head. “I don’t think I can handle this. We’d better go to the police.”

    “With what?” She threw her hands up, desperate to convince him to hang in there with her. “All we have is a little bathroom trash and some bar-coded threats that even you say have nothing to do with her death. They’ll laugh at us, Dave--and when we finally uncover some solid evidence, they won’t listen to us.”

    He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re excited about this mess.”

    Now he was starting to sound like Stephanie. Susan resisted saying anything else to try to convince him. If he was really like Steph, the battle was already over.

    “Will you promise me that you’ll be careful? That you’ll come to me before you actually confront anyone?”

    She held up her right hand as if swearing in court. “I promise.”

    Steph was stretched out on the couch in Susan’s living room. Jay Leno had just finished his monologue. Roger and Chris had gone off to their rooms, and Susan had turned down the volume so the noise wouldn’t keep them up. Susan had been quiet all evening. Now that the guys were gone, maybe she’d say what was bothering her.

    Jay was hugging a pale, thin blonde woman that Steph didn’t recognize. She must be a new movie star. It had been six months since Steph had been to a movie. Bill had sucked her into his personal boycott of all things Hollywood. Steph shook her head, amazed that she’d been so dumb.

    “Every time Patty bounces into my office I want to cringe. I look at her perky smile and wonder if she’s a murderer.”

    “So Patty makes you nervous.”

    A year of dating Jared The Psychologist had taught Steph a few tricks about validating people’s feelings. Too bad Jared hadn’t had any feelings of his own. Steph could still see him thoughtfully stroking his sideburns and echoing back to her, “So you feel it’s time I moved out.”

    Susan pointed the remote toward the TV and the screen went black. The room was almost completely dark except for the streetlight outside the window. They sat there for a few minutes. It was always easier to talk about difficult things in the dark.

    “I just don’t know what to do next. In the movies and in books, people come out and tell the detective what they did. What the hell do I do if no one will talk to me?”

    Stephanie kept her tone matter of fact. “You’re going to have to get closer to her. Become her pal. Maybe she’ll confide in you.”

    Susan snorted. “Oh great, that sounds like fun.”

    Susan didn’t want to consider the safest and most obvious course of action, but Steph had to try to convince her. “Or you could drop this amateur investigation before you get in too deep.”

    “I can’t just drop it. I’ve uncovered incriminating evidence.”

    Frustration made Steph sit up. “You could write a very nice letter describing your incriminating evidence and mail it to the Redmond police. Let the professionals take over.”

    The room was quiet for a minute. Susan seemed to be considering that idea. Asking her to write a letter called on all her professional pride. She was probably thinking up some fancy wording even now--

    “It might not be so bad pretending to be Patty’s friend.”

    Steph clucked in disgust. There was just no talking to some people.


    Chapter 14


    “My personal philosophy is that if you find a method or procedure that works, you should use it again and again. Consistency yields predictable results, and that’s good for business.” Philip toyed with the end of his ponytail, which lay like a fat banana curl on his chest. “I don’t reward people for reinventing the wheel.”

    Susan continued nodding, pretending to be interested. All she’d wanted was to show off the template she’d developed for the Salmon project’s online help, but she’d somehow invited this twenty-minute lecture. Sinking deeper into the leather chair across from him, she realized that he could keep her in here all morning and she’d lose her chance to snoop in Patty’s office.

    “Of course,” he droned, “if a method fails, you can’t be sentimental. You must throw it out immediately and pioneer a new approach.”

    “That’s a great philosophy.” She levered herself out of the cushy seat, boldly taking it upon herself to end the meeting. “Thanks for your insight.”

    He scowled. He didn’t like losing control of the meeting. “There’s one more thing I want to ask you, about what happened yesterday.”

    Susan almost dropped her notebook, not sure if he meant the trash on her desk or the way Dave had dragged her outside to talk. His office was just a few feet from hers; she should have realized he could easily have seen either event.

    He leaned forward and whispered urgently, “If someone here is bothering you--”

    She wrinkled her brow, trying to look puzzled. There was no way she would talk to him, no matter how gentle and caring he sounded. Too many people disliked him for her to trust him.

    “--I would hope that you felt you could come to me for help.”

    Something made her sure he was talking about the way Dave had manhandled her. Either he had seen it, or the green-haired smoker had tipped him off. Philip was probably trying to avert a sexual harassment lawsuit. She wouldn’t do anything to get Dave in trouble. Absolute, unflinching denial was the best way to handle this.

    “Thank you. I appreciate your concern, although there is no reason for it. Nothing happened yesterday. Everyone here has been completely helpful and welcoming.” She punctuated her speech with a cheerful smile and started walking out.

    “I know what I saw, Susan,” he called. “It’s an obsession. When you put the facts together, remember that I’m here to help you.”

    Susan dialed extension 7231, heard the ringing through the handset, and then heard the bell ringing in Patty’s phone, which was only about ten feet away from where Susan was hiding. She would have to speak softly so Patty didn’t hear her in stereo.

    “Patty Wilson.”

    “Hey, it’s Susan. Someone put a box of muffins in the coffee room. If you want one, you’d better get down here.” Luckily, whispering the message made it seem all the more realistic.

    “Thanks, I’m there.”

    The phone clicked and a chair squeaked. Susan poked her head out of the conference room and watched Patty disappear down the hall without telling anyone else about the muffins.

    Susan strolled casually into Patty’s cube. If anyone saw her, they’d think she was just visiting. As usual, the place was a mess. Stacks of manuals and review drafts threatened to topple over. Papers, disks, and cables were scattered across all surfaces.

    Patty’s calendar diary was in a fancy cranberry leather binder. It was open to today’s date. Susan leaned over the swivel chair and flipped back to the day Rebecca died. The page was filled with notes. Susan scanned down the appointments column and saw that 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. was blocked off with the note, “STC meeting on indexing,” in red ink. There was nothing marked after 9:00 p.m.

    On a whim, she opened the Address/Phone tab near the back of the binder and turned the pages until she found an entry for Mary Ann Cross. A Seattle address had been crossed out and replaced with a phone number with a California area code. Susan looked around for a piece of paper to write the number on.

    “If anyone’s interested, there are muffins in the coffee room.”

    Patty! She was right in the hallway. She must have run to the damned coffee room. There was no way to get out of her cube without being seen. Susan flipped the calendar back to the current day. Inspiration made her pivot and launch herself butt first into the guest chair beside the desk. She winced as she landed on a hardcover book.

    Patty walked in with a half-eaten chocolate muffin on a paper towel, and Susan brought her right hand to her mouth and licked imaginary crumbs off her fingers. “I practically inhaled mine. Aren’t they great?”

    Patty’s mouth was full, so she just nodded and kept chewing. She stepped to her chair and rested her hand on the back of it. Susan realized she must have moved the chair slightly. Patty tilted her head and studied Susan. She finally swallowed.

    “You’re not fooling me, Susan.”

    Susan’s heart skipped a beat, but she wiped her fingers on her jeans and tried to look sincerely perplexed. “What do you mean?”

    “You said ‘someone’ brought in muffins. But you did, didn’t you?”

    “Me?” The question came out weak and squeaky, practically an admission of guilt. How much had Patty figured out?

    Patty had a superior smile. “I knew it. You’re that type. Never want to take credit when you do something nice.”

    Relief flooded Susan, and she shrugged sheepishly. It didn’t matter if Patty knew about the muffins. Susan resisted the urge to glance at the calendar to make sure she hadn’t left any trace of her snooping.

    Patty put her muffin on her desk and rubbed her hands together briskly. “Can I make a suggestion?”

    Susan nodded, bracing herself for a lecture on how career women need to embrace masculine modes of behavior and grab all the credit they can.

    “Next time, get more chocolate muffins. Nobody likes lemon poppy seed.”

    Susan had a lot of friends who regularly attended the monthly meetings of the Society for Technical Communications, but who could she trust to keep quiet about her questions? A cheerful face framed by a gray-blonde pageboy came to mind. Dot Rivas! They’d worked together last year on the competition and the auction. Dot knew everybody’s secrets and never told. Susan opened the email program on her PC. She selected Dot’s email address and started typing the message.


    Hope all is well at Wolff these days. Loved your article in the Sound Views newsletter re: how to encourage reviewers to honor deadlines. You forgot to mention chocolate chip cookies. An oversight? Anyway, I have a question about last month’s STC meeting. Were you there?

    See you,


    Susan sent the message and leaned back in her chair. She hoped Dot would verify that Patty had been at the meeting. If Patty didn’t have an alibi, maybe they were back to the murder theory. Susan shivered, suddenly cold. Patty was intense, but could she kill?

    Later that afternoon, Susan’s PC beeped. She had new mail. She opened the email program. There were three new messages, and one was from DOT@WOLFF.COM. The message read:

    Hello Sam!  Of course I was at the meeting.  Where were you? ;^)  Twenty of us were stuffed into a conference room listening to Arnie Smith wax poetic on the secret joys of indexing.  His handouts were good; his jokes were not.  What else do you want to know?  I suggest dinner so we can catch up.


    PS  These days, it’s politically incorrect to talk about using feminine wiles (like baking cookies) to bribe reviewers. The official policy: reviewers should just do their %&#@ jobs w/o the cookies!

    Susan replied immediately, suggesting that they meet at Azteca’s bar at seven o’clock tonight.


    “Hey, you’re not Ken.”

    Andy, who was sitting in front of Ken’s computer, looked up at Susan and grinned. “You should have been a detective. Speaking of which, any luck tracking down the person who did that thing?”

    “Not yet. Right now, I need to talk to Ken about something work related. Is he around?”

    “He called in sick. And I’m taking advantage of his absence to do some housekeeping.” Andy turned back to the screen and used the mouse to drag an icon across the desktop. It looked like he was updating some of the system files. That seemed like a pretty normal IT department task.

    “He’s sick? Rats.” Susan crossed her arms. “He was supposed to finish reviewing something for me.”

    Andy shrugged sympathetically. “If you want to look around, I won’t stop you.”

    Susan scanned the desk. The chapter she’d given him had a bright green cover. It shouldn’t be hard to find. The desk was shockingly neat. Telephone, stapler, and pen caddy were all lined up perfectly along the edge of the desk. Neatly labeled three-ring binders filled the shelf over the desk. There was no loose paper anywhere.

    Maybe he hadn’t even started working on it.

    She stepped back outside and pulled everything out of the in-basket hanging outside his doorway. Among the computer magazines, resumes, and interoffice memos, she found her chapter.

    “Oh man.” She flipped through the pages, but he hadn’t made one mark on them. If he didn’t review this thing quickly, she would never make the project deadline. She stuffed everything back into the in-basket, making sure her chapter was in the front--not that she really thought it would do her any good.

    Susan went back in and sat down on Ken’s low filing cabinet. “You know, sometimes I hate engineers.”

    Without looking up, Andy muttered, “I hear you.”

    She let herself slump back against the fabric-covered cubicle wall. She could try bribing Ken with cookies again, no matter what her colleagues at the STC thought of the practice. If that didn’t work, she could complain to his manager, Tom. But she didn’t want to do that. It might ruin any chance she had of developing a good working relationship with the jerk.

    Susan took a deep breath to calm down. Instead of relaxing, she detected a faint, rotten odor. She wrinkled her nose. “What is that smell?”

    Andy grimaced and pointed under Ken’s desk. “You’re not going to believe this.”

    She bent over to get a good look. All the space under the desk was filled with stuff, except for a small clear area for Ken’s feet when he sits at the desk. It was dark, but she could discern neat towers of paper, Styrofoam takeout food containers, pop cans, and boxes. It was disgusting, but strangely tidy.

    A curious black shape on the carpet caught her eye, and Susan reached out to touch it. It was a bundle of black plastic comb bindings. She sat back on her heels, remembering how he’d scooped the bindings off her desk that first time she met him. He had said he’d recycle them. Weird.

    Susan stood up, clearing her throat. “One of my neighbors when I was a kid did this. His whole house was filled with newspapers and junk, and he had little pathways to get from room to room.”

    Andy looked horrified. “I hope it doesn’t get that bad.”

    “It wouldn’t be so bad if you couldn’t smell it.” She knelt down and peered under the desk again. “What stinks down here?”

    The Styrofoam containers were her best bet, Susan thought. She reached out for the stack, making a mental note to wash her hands as soon as possible. She pulled the containers toward her, and the smell followed. It was a rotten food smell, with acidic overtones of barbecue sauce.

    “You don’t think he’ll mind of we throw these away, do you?”

    “Who cares!”

    Susan headed down the hall toward the coffee room, holding her cargo out to the side so the smell theoretically trailed off behind her. The containers were open, stacked tightly inside each other, but there were bits of food clinging to them. It was beyond her why anyone would save trash.

    In the kitchen, she tossed the containers in the garbage can and washed her hands thoroughly. She grabbed some paper towels to dry her hands and froze. Maybe Ken, with his strange love affair with garbage, had been the one to dump her bathroom trash all over her desk yesterday!

    Mark had seen him come in early, carrying a gym bag, which was odd because Ken didn’t seem like a guy who worked out. So he had the opportunity to dump her trash. But why? Susan didn’t think she’d pushed him that hard with her questions about Rebecca. Maybe he just didn’t like her. Getting him to review her writing--and explain the cryptic, rude comments he’d written on Rebecca’s review draft--had been like pulling teeth.

    She walked slowly back to Ken’s cube, where Andy was waiting. She shouldn’t say anything to Andy about this. It was just a wild guess.

    “It still kind of smells in here,” Andy complained.

    Susan shrugged. “It’s probably going to take awhile for the smell to dissipate. Let me see if I missed anything.”

    She knelt down, glad that Andy had handed her a reason to take another look. She wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything under there that belonged to her. The idea that Ken might save bits of her personal trash turned her stomach more than the smell.

    She didn’t see anything familiar, thank God. For Andy’s sake, she also made sure there was nothing else under there that might generate an odor. Behind where the Styrofoam containers had been was a neat stack of boxes for various pieces of computer hardware. Each box had a Computer World sticker on it, just like the ones Rebecca had published in her last review draft.

    “What else is under there?” Andy sounded like he was ready to bolt if she found anything else nasty, and Susan grinned.

    “Don’t worry. It looks clean.”

    She grabbed a box and backed out. Maybe Ken had given Rebecca the idea to put new price tags in that appendix. If she could take this back to her office, she could compare his price tag to the ones in the appendix.

    She looked at Andy, who was gathering up his stuff and powering off Ken’s machine. “Do you think Ken would mind if I took this, too?”

    He shrugged. “Do him a favor. Hire a dumpster and take it all.”

    “Thanks, Andy.” Susan headed for her office with the box tucked under her arm. If Ken had helped Rebecca make the new price tags, why was he being such a jerk to Susan?

    Mark pushed the button to take the elevator to the first floor and sighed. He’d had so much trouble with Rebecca and Mary Ann. He hoped Patty and Susan didn’t develop some kind of long-term feud as well. Women. They just couldn’t work together.

    So far, Susan had seemed great. She was funny and cooperative, and everyone seemed to like her. With luck, she would listen to what he had to say and just shrug it off.

    Mark gnawed on his thumbnail. If he could just find the right words... He ought to present this thing as a problem with Patty. It really was a problem with Patty. If he thought he could get away with it, he wouldn’t say anything to Susan, but then Patty might take matters into her own hands.

    He spit a shred of fingernail onto the floor just as the elevator doors opened. The extra ten K a year he got for being the lead writer and dealing with crap like this didn’t seem worth it.

    Martha watched Mark Eastman limp through the lobby. A filmy gray fog clung to him. Whenever he was headed to Philip’s office, he left a trail of small black clouds. Martha sighed. Too bad she couldn’t read minds. It was practically impossible to accurately interpret all these clouds and sparks.

    No one had told her that LSD would make her see stuff like this twenty years after taking it. Of course, at thirteen, that type of information would probably have prompted her to take even more.

    The phone buzzed and Martha pressed a button. “Good afternoon,” she said in her best fake British accent. “You have reached the world-wide headquarters of Efficient Software Solutions. How may I direct your call?”

    Mark found Susan in her office and asked her to come talk to him for a few minutes in the conference room. She looked at him curiously and nodded. When they had settled into chairs on either side of the small table, he cleared his throat.

    “I’m going to put on my lead writer hat right now. I wanted to start by saying you’re doing a great job.”

    Her smile stayed in place. “Thanks. I like working here.”

    “People really like you. That’s what I’ve heard, how fast you settled in and got some good work done, and how much people like you.”

    He paused. There was a wariness in her eyes now.


    “But I have one piece of constructive criticism for you.” He corrected himself. “Not constructive criticism, really. More like a friendly warning.”

    Her eyes narrowed.

    He slid to the edge of his chair and tried to explain. “Warning sounds a little strong. Hell! Let me just tell you instead of trying to characterize it.”

    She crossed her arms, not giving him an inch.

    “It’s about Patty’s chair.”

    She looked confused. “Her chair?”

    He nodded, letting a smile creep into his voice. “Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous. She’s very protective of her fancy chair, and she thinks you sat in it.”

    Susan grinned. “Really?”

    “She had a back injury a year or so ago, and Labor and Industry, that’s the state labor board? Well, they bought her a special chair to support her back. She doesn’t like anyone to touch it, and she thinks you were sitting in it when she went out for a donut or something.”

    He knew that screwing up the details would make it even clearer that he thought the whole thing was pretty stupid. He’d rather convey that message subtly than say something that might come back to bite him later.

    “She’s mad because she thinks I sat in her chair?”

    Susan said it as if she couldn’t believe it was true. Mark noticed she didn’t deny sitting in the chair. That was interesting. Now what? She seemed to be taking the whole thing well, so he decided to spill a little more of the idiotic story.

    “Actually, she’s afraid that you’re going to do a little midnight requisitioning and she wanted me to let you know we don’t do that at ESS.”

    Susan leaned back, clearly enjoying herself now. “She thinks I’m going to wait till she goes home one night and steal her chair?”

    He shrugged and nodded. “She thinks it’s a possibility, yeah.”

    Susan glanced at the closed door as if verifying their privacy. “This conversation is off the record?”

    He threw his hands up. “I’m not going to tell anyone about it.”

    She leaned forward, with a serious expression. “Should I avoid her?”

    The question jolted him. If Susan started ignoring Patty, she would retaliate, and all hell would break loose. He could feel the sweat along his collar. He had to say something to make sure World War III didn’t erupt.

    “This place is so small, it would be hard to do that. But I don’t think you have to. She actually likes you. She talked to me because she was looking for an easy way out. It would be in your interest to continue being friendly. Just don’t touch her stuff.”

    Susan’s expression didn’t change while he spoke. He was tempted to keep talking until he got a smile out of her. But he knew he should shut up. He had already said too much.

    Susan leaned back in her chair and stared up at the ceiling. Mark felt the seconds tick by. She had seemed so easygoing. Had he misjudged her?

    “It’s interesting that she had a back injury once. Now she’s making a big production out of her wrists.”

    He kept his face blank, hiding his shock. She’d hit the nail on the head. Patty did seem to be setting herself up for another big workman’s compensation claim. But there was no way he was going to voice that opinion.

    Susan watched his face and then waved a hand at him. “You know what, let’s pretend I never said that.”

    Mark smiled, relieved. “I’m going to tell her that she was mistaken about your intentions, and that I explained that ESS is very generous in allowing us to order our own office supplies.” He pushed his chair back. “Why don’t I let you get back to work?”

    She followed him out into the hallway, noticing that he was still favoring his leg. “Hey, how’s your knee?”

    “I’ve got a heck of a scab, really freaked out my wife and kids last night. Just between you and me, though, there’s no damage. It’s just a bit stiff. I guess I need to take some more ibuprofen.” He snapped his fingers. “I knew I was forgetting something. You’ve got another project.”

    “Telling me about your scab reminded you of it?” She put her hands on her hips and pretended to be annoyed. “What kind of job are you dumping on me?”

    He grinned. “No, the ibuprofen reminded me. This is one of those projects I always think of as a headache: very little actual work, but lots of meetings. But I have to ask you to do it since it was originally Rebecca’s.”


    “Hugh Nichols is the engineer. You’ll like working with him. He negotiated an OEM deal with Wilson Electronics. They make a portable bar code printer we want to sell to our customers. We’re slapping our logo on the printer, so we need to make the user manual look like one of ours. All you really have to do is reprint the files, create a new cover and title page, and send it to the printer. I’m sure you’ll find all Rebecca’s notes filed under Wilson.”

    Susan nodded. Wolff Data Systems used the same strategy, and she’d worked on a couple of projects like this one. The problem was, you never knew how bad the manual was. Sometimes it took more than a new cover to bring the book up to par.

    “Nothing I can’t handle.”

    “Great. Hugh will email you before the next meeting.” He waved cheerfully and turned away.

    Susan watched him walk down the corridor toward the stairs. Mark didn’t really seem to enjoy being in charge of Tech Pubs. She wouldn’t like it, either, if she was stuck running interference for someone like Patty.

    His face had gone blank when she’d hinted that Patty might be faking her injuries. He hadn’t pretended not to understand what she meant, nor had he jumped to Patty’s defense. Maybe that meant he knew what was going on. If he did, why wasn’t he trying to stop the woman?

    Susan heard a noise from her office and crossed the hall quickly to look in. Dave sat on the edge of her desk, looking at the cardboard box she had taken from Ken’s cube.

    “Hi, Susan.” He held the box up. “You bought a SCSI drive?”

    He sounded as excited as if he’d just asked if she’d bought a jet ski. Computer geeks do love hardware. She grinned. If it had been anyone else in here, she would have been mad.

    “It’s not mine.”

    “Okay, I’ll bite, whose is it?”

    “I found the box under Ken’s desk this morning.”

    “Ken Chan? What were you doing under his desk?”

    “That’s a long story.” Andy must not have mentioned the incident to Dave. It was good to know he could keep something a secret. She glanced over her shoulder in the empty hallway. Philip was in today, and she didn’t want to take the chance of being overheard.

    “Listen, are you claustrophobic?”

    He didn’t bat an eye at the nonsequitor. “Nope.”

    She used her foot to slide her metal trashcan out of the way, and then she shut the door. The office seemed smaller than ever.

    Dave had a bemused look on his face. “You don’t want anyone to know you took Ken’s box?”

    He had assured her that he and Rebecca had been just friends, but what she had to say might upset him anyway. She chose her words carefully. “I think I found someone we should talk to about Rebecca.”

    The humor left his face. “Who?”

    “Ken. I think they had some kind of relationship.”

    He looked surprised. “She couldn’t stand that guy. What makes you think they had a relationship?”

    “He was secretly helping her here at work, which amazes me because he’s been a total jerk every time I’ve asked for his help.”

    Dave looked at her blankly and then ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to run this by me a little slower. How was Ken secretly helping Rebecca?”

    Susan grabbed a copy of Rebecca’s review draft and held it out so he could see that the sample price tags matched the price tag on the box he was holding.

    “I think he helped her come up with these new illustrations, but that the plan backfired and she got in trouble.”

    “How did it backfire?”

    “Well, for three reasons.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, you can’t use a real company’s name and logo without their permission. Two, she would have had to rewrite all the instructions, and nobody had the time or patience for that. And three, her bar codes didn’t match the product codes underneath them.”

    Dave’s eyes narrowed. “What’s this about the codes not matching?”

    Susan put down the manual and gave him the scanner from a desk drawer. “See for yourself.”

    He pushed the power button and waited for the machine to boot. He seemed angry all of a sudden, and Susan wondered if he hated the idea of Rebecca having a relationship with Ken. At Java Jungle, he’d said newly sober people weren’t supposed to date at all.

    The scanner beeped as Dave checked the price tag in the book. “You’re right.” He surprised her then by scanning the price tag on the SCSI drive box. “Oh, man.”

    Dave turned the scanner so she could see the display screen. The product code on the screen did not match the one on the price tag.

    “What does that mean?” Maybe she had misunderstood Mark when he said the string of numbers under the bar code had to match the information encoded in the bar code symbol.

    “Let me think for a minute.”

    “Dave, what’s going on?” She poked him in the shoulder, trying not to be distracted by his muscles under the soft flannel.

    “I’m not sure.”

    He peeled the price tag sticker off the box, revealing another one underneath it. Dave scanned the new tag and frowned.

    “On this one, the numbers match.” He handed her the scanner so she could see the numbers.

    Dave frowned at the stickers, one of which was comically stuck to the tip of his pointer finger. She felt kind of funny just standing next to him while he did his deep thinking act, so she slipped behind him and sat on the low filing cabinet.

    “Dave, there must be a million reasons for a store to put one price tag on top of another.”

    He shook his head. “I can’t think of one reason for a store to use a sticker with a bar code and product identifier that don’t match.” He wagged his pointer finger and sticker at her. “I’m telling you, this is not a mistake that’s easy to make. Think about the application we sell that lets you make price tags. The software asks you what you want the bar code symbol to be, and then it automatically generates both the symbol and the identifier. You have to do a couple of extra steps to get them mismatched.”

    She nodded. She hadn’t used the Price Tag Designer enough to be sure, but what he said seemed to make sense.

    Dave rubbed the back of his neck. “I could be completely off base here, but just hear me out. About a year ago, there was a newspaper article floating around the company about a bunch of people getting arrested for shoplifting in New York City.”

    “So?” What did that have to do with anything?

    “Their trick was to stick a new bar code price tag on the thing they wanted so they didn’t have to pay the full price. We all thought it was kind of interesting because, well, it’s right up our alley.”

    “I guess so. We have the software, the stickers, and the printers. But how would you make something like that work? You’d have to know the store’s own codes.”

    “The article didn’t explain how the scam worked, but I bet they just bought a cheaper item and used its bar code. They would have to pick something similar to the item they really wanted so that any information displayed on the cash register would sort of match.”

    She teased him. “You put a lot of thought into this, didn’t you?”

    “Not me.” He shook his head. “I can’t afford to pull a stunt like that. If I were to start shoplifting stuff, my next step might be taking a drink.”

    That seemed like a huge leap, but Susan wasn’t going to argue with him. “Are you accusing Ken of shoplifting? That doesn’t make sense. Engineers make a ton of money.”

    “It wouldn’t be about money. He’d be showing off his technical skill.”

    “Yes, but who would he be showing off to?” She winced. Maybe she should have said, To whom… But Dave didn’t notice her faulty construction. “What I mean is, if you do something illegal, you can’t brag about it without getting into trouble.”

    He stared at her for a few seconds and then looked pointedly at Rebecca’s manual. “Maybe he did brag to someone.”

    “You think that’s how his price tags ended up in her book? But you said she couldn’t stand him.”

    He suddenly looked like he had a stomach ache. “She couldn’t.”

    “Maybe she was blackmailing him.”

    Dave shook his head. “She wasn’t like that.”

    If he didn’t like her first suggestion, he was really going to hate this one. “Maybe she was in on it.”

    He crossed his arms. “She wasn’t like that, either.”

    Susan rolled her eyes. “Okay, she was a freaking angel. So what do you think she was doing with his price tags in her book?”

    He snapped, “I don’t know!” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The frustration left his voice. “She might have been messing with him, trying to get him to turn himself in--or at least stop doing it.”

    “I’ll buy that.” Susan whistled. “Ken’s going to get fired if HR finds out he was using our software to make up fake price tags.”

    “There’s only one way to be sure. We need to see what this mismatched number is for.” He held the sticker out to her. “If it’s for a cheaper product, then we’ve got him.”

    She pulled the sticker off his finger and read the number aloud for him. Dave copied the number onto a yellow sticky note.

    Susan put the sticker back on the box next to the original. “You know, my fingerprints are all over this now.” She felt a mild sense of panic. “I’ve implicated myself.”

    “Don’t worry, I’ll be your alibi.” He grinned at her. “Let’s go to Computer World tonight right after work.”

    Susan shook her head. She had to meet Dot at Azteca. “I can’t. I have plans.”

    “Oh.” He sounded disappointed. “That’s okay. I’ll go by myself.”

    “Can I give you my home number? That way, you can call me and tell me what you find out.” She held out her hand.

    He nodded and handed her the paper and pen. “That would be great.”

    Susan wrote her phone number underneath the two product identifiers, trying not to grin. The man knew she was celibate, for God’s sake. He wasn’t going to be calling her to ask her out. Not for five and a half months, anyway.

    She handed him the paper, which he folded and tucked into the pocket of his plaid shirt. “You should give me your number, too. Just in case.”

    He was gone before she remembered to warn him about Philip. She hadn’t wanted to say anything because it didn’t make sense. If Dave had an obsession with manhandling women, Patty would have told her. Nobody would call someone like that The Monk.

    Maybe Philip hadn’t been talking about Dave at all.

    From what she’d seen in his cube today, Ken Chan was the one with an obsession. Maybe Philip had seen the trash on her desk and was trying to tell her who the most likely culprit was.

    Why would he do that? It would only get Ken in trouble.

    Susan caught the bartender’s eye and pointed to their empty glasses. She’d had a yummy Haystack Black porter and Dot had ordered a margarita after flirting shamelessly with the handsome, young bartender.

    Dot studied the Polaroid that Susan had found on the company bulletin board. It was a close-up of Patty in a sombrero. It looked like someone had taken Patty out on her birthday to a Mexican restaurant that specialized in embarrassing birthday celebrations.

    “No, I didn’t see this woman at the meeting.”

    Susan pressed her. “Are you sure? She wouldn’t have been wearing a hat.”

    Dot laughed. “Give me some credit. I sat at the sign-in desk and made everyone’s name badges. This woman wasn’t there.” She handed the photo back to Susan. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

    Their drinks arrived with a fresh bowl of nacho chips and salsa, and Susan took a sip of her porter. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to tell Dot what was going on. If it was all a big mistake, this would amount to character assassination.

    Dot sipped her margarita and winked at the bartender. “God, he’s cute,” she said under her breath.

    Susan grinned. It was a relief to hang out with someone who wasn’t caught up in the Rebecca tragedy.

    “What about Raul?” Susan mentioned Dot’s husband to watch her reaction.

    “Raul was never that cute.” Dot waved one tanned, manicured hand in the air. “He’s only been handsome for the past ten years, since he started getting craggy and gray.”

    Susan raised her eyebrows. Raul was an extremely handsome man, and they made a striking couple. “I can’t believe he wasn’t always a hunk.”

    “He was a skinny, nerdy guy until he hit forty.” She scowled. “It’s so unfair!”

    They laughed. The bar was beginning to fill up, and a big man in a business suit sat next to Susan and commandeered the bowl of nachos.

    Dot put her hand on Susan’s arm. “I get the feeling you don’t want to tell me why you’re checking up on this woman. I can respect that.” Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “But let’s see if I can guess.”

    Susan leaned closer, wondering what Dot would say.

    “A couple of months ago, a Tech Pubs manager, I won’t mention the company name, came to me with a list of people in her department who were supposed to have been coming to the meetings regularly. I told her I’d never met them. She said her company paid their STC dues with the stipulation that they go to the meetings and participate. Obviously, they’d been lying to her, and was she ever pissed.” Dot took a long drink. “Did I guess right? Is that what you’re looking into?”

    Susan hated misleading a friend, but she nodded her head emphatically while saying blandly, “I’m not at liberty to comment on that.”

    Dot grinned and lifted her glass in a toast. “There’s a lot more skullduggery in our industry than one would think!”

    Computer World was a huge, brightly lit warehouse store that stocked everything a techie could want. Dave figured he’d spent his fair share of hours wandering through the wide aisles looking for exactly the right cable or just browsing for new equipment he didn’t even know he needed. Tonight he was on a mission, and so he headed directly for the portable SCSI drives.

    Dave walked down the aisle, reading brand names until he found the one Ken had. There was a cheaper version of Ken’s SCSI drive on the shelf, but the spot where the top of the line drive should have been was empty.

    He went down on one knee to make sure there wasn’t one pushed all the way to the back of the shelf or hiding behind another box.

    “May I help you?”

    Dave looked up at a woman wearing the standard Computer World uniform, a white polo shirt with a satellite shot of the Earth on it. She was young and cute and staring at him like he was a tasty dessert she wanted to gobble up. Dave got to his feet, smiling back at her.

    “I hope so,” he paused, looking at the name tag pinned above her impressive breasts, “Allison.”

    She beamed at him. “Full service is one of the things that differentiates Computer World from catalog companies.”

    That mouthful had to be some executive’s idea of a store motto, but it rolled off her tongue like poetry. Higher prices also differentiated this store from catalogs, which reminded Dave how strange it was for Ken to shop at a place like this. But Ken hadn’t been looking for bargains.

    “I’m looking for this SCSI drive.” He pointed to the empty spot.

    She tilted her head as if assessing him. “We carry both PCI and USB drives that are a lot closer to the cutting edge than that SCSI drive.”

    Dave shrugged. “If only it were up to me.”

    Allison pulled a bar code scanner from the holster at her waist and stepped closer to him. A cloud of musky perfume made his nose itch, and he fought the urge to step away. She scanned the shelf tag and looked at the display screen.

    “There are two more in stock,” she purred. “Let me get one for you.” She walked away, swinging her hips. She was a bit too forward for his taste, and he wondered if she flirted with every male customer.

    When she was out of sight, he dropped back down and looked at the shelf tags for the two drives. From his jeans pocket, he pulled out the note where Susan had written the numbers from the bar code stickers on Ken’s box.

    The sticker that had been on top matched the numbers for the cheap drive, and the sticker that had been underneath--which was probably the original sticker--matched the expensive drive.

    He got back to his feet and stuffed the note into his pocket. There was no doubt about it. Ken had bought the expensive drive but had paid the cheaper price. The store might have accidentally mislabeled the drive, but Dave didn’t think Ken was that lucky. Not with all the stickers, printers, and bar code design software freely available at ESS. He’d bet his truck that Ken had made up his own sticker and slapped it on top of the original.

    Dave looked up and down the aisle. There was no one around. He could have put fake price tags on every box on this shelf by now and no one would be the wiser.

    After a couple more minutes, Allison returned empty handed. She had slathered on some red lipstick and was pouting. “I’m so sorry, Mr. …” Her voice trailed off, waiting for him to provide his name.


    She smiled again. “I’m sorry, Dave, but I was unable to locate that item for you.”

    It occurred to him that if Ken had been buying a lot of stuff with the wrong bar codes on it, then inventory would naturally be screwed up.

    “Does that happen a lot, Allison?”

    She waved her scanner at him. “Everything is computerized, so you’d think we could keep track of our stock, but we’ve had glitches in the last few months.” She touched his arm lightly. “Do you want me to special order that item for you, Dave?”

    He forced a smile. “No, thank you.”

    She pulled a business card from her pocket. “If you change your mind, please call me. You’ll be connected to my private voice mail box and you can leave me a message.” She stared into his eyes. “No one else has access to my voice mail but me.”

    It would be rude not to take the card, so Dave grabbed it and tucked it into his shirt pocket.

    “Thanks for all your help, Allison.”

    He headed for the doors, trying not to walk all goofy since he was sure she was staring at his butt. Women. He shook his head. There was no telling which ones were going to like you.

    As he stepped out into a light rain, he started whistling. Susan had given him her home number, and now he had a reason to call her. She’d been right about Ken. Dave grinned. Some day he’d have to thank Ken for being a jerk and providing him with a way to get to know Susan better.

    Susan hung up the phone and walked back into the living room. Steph was still lying on the floor with her feet up on the couch, but the ice bag was now sitting on her head.

    “What was that about?”

    Susan outlined Dave’s news from Computer World, trying to frame the whole thing as interesting gossip about work. From the way Steph was scowling, Susan didn’t think she was buying it.

    “So now you have proof that one of the engineers you work with has been making up fake price tags and using them to buy stuff?” Steph glared at Susan until she nodded.

    “Your next move is to update your resume and get the hell out of that job, right?”

    Susan shook her head.

    Steph threw her hands in the air. “I give up. You must be crazy. The woman who had the job before you is dead, the woman assigned as your buddy lied about where she was on that night, and now you find out one of the engineers is running some kind of shoplifting scheme in his spare time.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “Well, what was I thinking? That sounds like a nice place to spend ten hours a day.”

    Susan just sat there with a lump in her throat. ESS wasn’t perfect, but she couldn’t run away from another job. She’d walked out on a great future at Wolff when things with Jack had gotten hairy, and the Web-Tech job had kind of folded right under her. This job with ESS had to work out. Maybe the whole question of what happened to Rebecca was some kind of test that the universe had puked out especially for her, to give her a chance to redeem herself.

    Steph shifted her legs, testing how sore her back was. Her lower back was a little stiff, but there were no more shooting pains. The ice had done the trick. That was good. It would be a shame if she had to skip her workout tomorrow because she’d foolishly tried to move that oak dresser to vacuum behind it.

    She had her arms crossed over her face, and she peeked out at Susan, who was slumped in the blue chair looking dejected.

    Steph sighed. Of course she would give in. She usually did, if only because Susan needed her when she went on these adventures. The woman just couldn’t seem to see the danger, and she sometimes trusted the wrong person.

    “One of my clients shoplifts. Don’t ask me which one. I won’t tell you.” She peeked at Susan again, who was watching her, hanging on her every word and looking hopeful. “Anyway, this person says that the way to make money at it is to steal something and return it for cash.”

    Susan nodded like that made sense.

    “So it’s kind of odd for this guy to have kept the scuzzy thing, whatever that is, instead of trying to return it.” Susan grinned at the “scuzzy” comment, but Steph didn’t mind. Computer had never captured her interest. The challenge of a red wine stain on a white wool carpet--that was something Steph lived for. Luckily, she had a roster of clients happy to pay for her expertise in the domestic arts.

    “Maybe he stole other things and returned them until he had enough money to buy the SCSI drive.”

    “A man with goals! You’ll have to introduce us.” The remark slipped out before Steph could stop herself.

    Susan grinned wider. “The real question is, what do I do now? Do I tell someone at work, or do I call the police?”

    Steph sat up, frowning. “Don’t forget that Rebecca published his stupid price tags in her book and then ended up dead at the bottom of the stairs. Whatever you do--since you won’t quit--you’d better watch out for this guy.”

    Susan nodded, but she still didn’t seem to get it. Steph had the feeling she was being humored. Determined to make her point, she rummaged through her purse. “I want you to promise you’ll carry this.”

    She held something out, and Susan slid to the edge of the easy chair to take what looked like a large tube of lipstick with a leather cover.

    “What is it?”

    “Pepper spray.”


    Chapter 15


    A cold, misty rain blanketed Western Washington early Friday morning, making Susan want to snuggle under the covers and forget all about getting up. But the alarm clock rang anyway, and she remembered that today she had a presentation to make. The thought made her bolt right out of bed.

    She made it to work by a quarter to eight and had to use her badge to unlock the front door. Now that she knew for certain that the information was collected in a log file somewhere, she loved the idea of coming in early.

    A few email messages had collected in her account overnight. One was from Hugh Nichols, welcoming her to the Wilson Electronics printer project, which apparently didn’t have a silly code name like Carnival or Salmon. He invited her to his next status meeting, Monday morning at ten. He didn’t have a conference room reserved yet, so he would stop by her office and get her a few minutes before that. They would be meeting with the marketing rep, Melanie Carter, to go over the schedule.

    She sent a quick reply agreeing to the plan and then made a note in her calendar. On a whim, she opened the filing cabinet and scanned for a folder labeled Wilson. It was there, just as Mark had said. The file was an inch thick. Susan didn’t want to distract herself from her web presentation, so she just shut the drawer without examining the file.


    It was time. Susan grabbed the laptop Tom had loaned her and headed toward the elevator. She wanted to get there a couple of minutes early to make sure she could connect the laptop to the projection screen, so everyone could see the web page she’d designed for the Salmon Beta test.

    When the elevator doors opened, Dave started to step out. He jolted to a halt, grinning at her, and then waved her in.

    “I was going to HR to talk about hiring another Information Technology specialist for my department, but I have time to ride with you.”

    “It’s always nice to have company.” Susan got onto the elevator with him and pressed the button for the second floor.

    “I know this is late notice, but are you busy tomorrow night?”

    Her heart pounded. Hadn’t he been listening to her? Very nonchalant, she shrugged. “Nothing I can’t get out of.”

    Dave lowered his voice, even though no one could possibly overhear them. “Would you come to an AA meeting with me tomorrow night? My friend Eileen will be there. You’ll be able to ask her all the questions you want to.”

    He wasn’t proposing a date, just a field trip. “She said it was okay?”

    “Well, no. I haven’t been able to reach her, but I figured this would be the best way.”

    “If you think that’s a good idea…” Yikes, he wanted her to go to one of those meetings. What should she wear? Would she have to pretend to be an alcoholic?

    He nodded. “I’ll email you directions to my house, and we can drive over together.”

    The elevator bounced as it settled on the second floor. The doors opened and she stepped out.

    “All right.” Susan waved as the doors closed and the elevator took him back downstairs. This was great. She’d get to spend a little time with Dave away from work, and she’d get to talk to the one woman Rebecca might have confided in. Everything was falling into place.

    The Salmon status meeting proceeded smoothly, but Susan’s attention wandered. Her heart was pounding and she found it hard to concentrate. It was ridiculous to be this nervous about making a presentation, she’d done it many times in her career, but this would be the first time she would be performing in front of her new coworkers. She concentrated on acting calm, and she casually looked around the room to keep her mind off her nervousness.

    The five of them were jammed in the small conference room. Tom was running the meeting from the head of the table. Slumped in the chair next to him, Ken hadn’t said a word during the entire meeting. Philip sat in a chair in the corner of the room, even though there were empty seats at the table. His legs were stretched out, and his bare feet rested on a nearby chair. From where she sat, Susan could see his soles were none too clean. She wished there was some way to mark that chair so she’d never have to sit on it.

    Melanie Carter sat directly across from Susan. She had just finished describing the marketing department’s assessment of the customers who would participate in the beta test. She spoke with a charming southern accent that seemed to capture everyone’s attention. Susan hoped she’d have a chance to get to know her better, especially since they would also be working on the Wilson Electronics printer deal together.

    “Thanks, Melanie.” Tom cleared his throat and glanced from Melanie to Susan before fixing his gaze on his meeting agenda. “Okay, the only thing left for us to discuss is the web page we’ll use to distribute the beta software and gather customer feedback. I think Susan has some information for us on that topic.”

    That was her cue. “Thanks, Tom.”

    She clicked her mouse, and the browser window on her laptop was projected onto the large white movie screen built into the conference room wall. “As you can see, I have a demo of the new web page ready for you to--”

    “Now you wait a cotton picking minute!” Melanie slapped the table with her open palm.

    Susan jumped, then stared open mouthed at the angry woman across the table from her. The outburst was so unexpected that all her performance anxiety drained away.

    Melanie stabbed the air in Susan’s direction with her pencil. “That web page was just fine the way it was! Who asked you to--”

    “I did.” Philip’s voice was loud and calm. Everyone at the table simultaneously whipped their heads around to look at him. “I asked Susan to evaluate and revise the web page, and I would like to see this demo.”

    He nodded for her to continue.

    Susan was glad she had practiced the demo a couple of times and could run through it smoothly without having to think about it too much. “This page appears when the customer logs onto our secure web site…”

    Obviously Melanie had been in charge of the original web page. That meant Susan had better not spend any time pointing out all the problems with that page. Damn Philip. He had set her up for this. He had asked her specifically to talk about how the new web site improved upon the old one.

    “…At this point, the customer can click this icon to download the software binary files to their own machine…”

    Everyone but Philip stared at the projection screen. His attention seemed to be split between Melanie and Susan.

    “…The customer can click this icon to send us feedback…”

    Susan was almost finished, which was good because she could feel the waves of hostility radiating from Melanie.

    “Are there any questions?” No one even looked at her. “Thanks for your attention.” Susan closed down her laptop.

    Philip nodded his head. “We’re going to use Susan’s web page design.”

    Melanie sucked in some air presumably to object, but snapped her mouth shut again when Philip held up a hand to stop her.

    “Our new writer appears to know more about the web than you do.” His tone was mild but even Susan felt the insult like a slap in the face. Melanie paled. Both Tom and Ken merely looked down at their notebooks.

    “The new page is without question easier to use than the original. I want everything to go perfectly for this beta test, which means I do not want phone calls from irate testers who cannot figure out how to download the software from our web site. Like last year.”

    The pencil in Melanie’s hand snapped.

    “This meeting is adjourned.” Philip’s proclamation was like the starting gun at the Indy 500. Tom and Ken quickly scooped up their coffee mugs and notebooks and raced for the door. Melanie glared at Susan for a moment, then grabbed her leather calendar and stalked from the room.

    Philip swung his feet to the floor and stood, stretching, casual and relaxed as if the people around him were not fleeing the scene of a crime. “I want you to get the new web page online and tested by the end of the day today. If you need any help, talk to Tom.”

    Susan nodded and busied herself unplugging her laptop from the projector. She didn’t trust herself to be civil to the man who had just destroyed any chance she had of a friendly relationship with the entire marketing department.

    “Our charming marketing representative is not going to forget this any time soon.” Philip’s tone was uncharacteristically cheery and he absently combed his fingers through his long hair.

    Susan stared at him. His face was relaxed and smiling. He was almost handsome. Her stomach churned, and she felt even more repelled by him than usual.

    “I didn’t mean to offend her.” It almost hurt to say the words, pretending that she either didn’t realize that he’d set her up to torpedo Melanie.

    “She certainly took it as a personal affront.” He shrugged, as if to indicate that Melanie’s reaction was unimportant. “But you were clearly interested in what’s best for the product. I like that. All she wants is to get ‘Web Page Designer’ onto her resume so she can leverage her way onto someone else’s gravy train.”

    Susan’s head swam. When had he decided to become her friendly mentor?

    “Watch out for her. She might attempt to retaliate.”

    “Oh, come on.” The protest burst forth before Susan could censor her angry disbelief.

    “You don’t believe me?” He lowered his voice and leaned closer to her. “You seem very interested in the previous writer on this project. Oh yes, I’ve heard that you’ve been asking around about Rebecca. I don’t care what you do as long as you don’t miss any of my deadlines. But you should ask what Melanie did after little Rebecca crossed her. You’ll be surprised. Our Southern Belle has a mean streak.”

    Mark caught a glimpse of Susan’s face when she left the conference room. He trailed her to her closet, where he hounded her until she told him what had happened. He shook his head in disgust.

    “Philip is always pulling something like this. Let me see if I can find out anything that’ll help you.”

    An hour later, Susan slammed The Bar Code Bible shut. Even the fascinating world of bar code couldn’t distract her. She was so angry with Philip for setting her up. To tell the truth, she was really mad at herself. She should have seen it coming. She could easily have asked around when he assigned her the project, and she could have avoided making Melanie her enemy.

    She really should try to repair the damage to that relationship, but she’d better proceed slowly. Melanie had been furious. Inordinately so, Susan thought. Did her fury mean she had a long standing grudge with Philip or with tech writers in general? Or was she having some kind of personal problem? No one liked to admit when personal stuff affected their work.

    Susan tried her best to appear to have no life at all. She realized with a start that she might have succeeded a bit too well. She didn’t have a life. All she had were a few awards from the local STC chapter, a healthy 401(k) and the ability to talk to nerds at great length about networking protocols, Star Trek, and now bar code. Yikes. Suddenly it didn’t seem as important to get Melanie on her side as it was to get a life.

    The phone rang, and when she picked it up, she heard Mark’s voice.

    “I just called my friend in marketing and found out something that might help you.”

    “Tell me.”

    “Everyone in the department has been staying out of her way because she quit smoking cold turkey a couple days ago and appears to be losing her mind. But the word is, since lunchtime, she’s been in a much better mood.”

    “She’s smoking again?”

    “She must be.”

    Susan thanked him and hung up. No wonder Melanie had overreacted. Now that she was smoking again, she might be amenable to a reconciliation. That was good, because they were stuck with each other on Monday morning at Hugh Nichols’ status meeting.

    She absently felt the outline of the pepper spray canister in the front pocket of her jeans. If she couldn’t resolve this problem with Melanie, she’d find a way to show Philip what she thought of him.

    Yesterday he’d acted so concerned about her welfare. What a crock! She wouldn’t be surprised if he’d seen the garbage on her desk and realized it was a perfect opportunity to mess with Ken. Mark had said the two of them looked like they’d had breakfast together that morning--maybe he had even known what Ken was planning! Clearly, she had to drop the whole trash investigation. She couldn’t take the chance that anything she did would be playing into Philip’s hands.


    Chapter 16


    Rebecca Cafferty must have been obsessed with her filing system. Every scrap of paper, memo, and email from Hugh or Melanie on the topic of the Wilson Electronics printer had been filed neatly, organized by date, in the hanging folder marked Wilson.

    Susan started with the oldest notes and worked her way forward. Mark had been right. This project apparently had required a lot of babysitting and little work. Rebecca had attended meeting after meeting, taking abbreviated notes about engineering glitches and the splashy marketing campaign that Melanie was planning. As far as Susan could tell, the only thing Rebecca had done with the user manual was open all the document files to make sure they hadn’t been corrupted. That had probably required about twenty minutes of work in the six months she’d been on the project.

    Then Susan found a detailed, intelligent memo in the folder. She read it a few times, becoming more excited each time. Now this was something she could put to good use. With a burst of energy, she set to work, determined to repair both the manual and her relationship with Melanie.

    A couple of hours passed before she needed a break. She gathered up all the change rattling around the bottom of her purse and walked upstairs to get a candy bar and a cold drink from the machines in the coffee room. She didn’t see anyone on the way, although she heard keyclicks from some of the cubicles she passed.

    She bought her chocolate bar first and then turned to the pop machine. A bright yellow sign taped above the money slot said, “Tip your waitress, not this machine! Peace, Martha.”

    She chuckled as she bought herself a can of root beer. Apparently Martha’s first sign, with its heavy-handed authoritative tone, hadn’t stopped the soda thieves. At this point, though, even if the company decided to give the pop away for free, some idiot looking for a cheap thrill would sneak in here and try to tip the machine.

    Susan headed back down to her closet, already thinking about the work she was doing. She’d really like to finish today, so she’d have something to show Melanie on Monday. With any luck, the marketing rep would chain smoke all weekend and come to work in a really good mood.

    Susan slowed her car on the darkened country road and pulled into an even darker driveway. Gravel crunched under her tires, competing with the swish-swish of her windshield wipers. This had to be the right place; she’d followed his directions carefully. As she cleared the trees, she saw Dave’s truck parked in the pool of light in front of a three-car garage. Success!

    She parked next to the truck and peered out at the house. It was hard to tell much because of the rain and dark, but it looked like a lovely two-story home. Small lights dotted the walkway to the front door, illuminating huge rhododendrons and other shrubs. She heard Dave call her name. He was standing in a glass-paneled walkway that connected the house to the garage, holding the door open for her.

    She brushed against him as she stepped into what looked like a combination greenhouse and mud room. He smelled good, kind of spicy. She couldn’t identify the cologne.

    “You found it, I’m glad.”

    “Of course I did. You give good directions, for a manager.”

    They stood grinning at each other.

    “Let’s get into the house.” He led her into a brightly lit, homey kitchen and pointed to a door. “My apartment is downstairs.”

    As they descended, Susan stared at his butt. Something about this guy just brought out the animal in her. As always, he had his pager and cell phone clipped to his belt. The collar of his navy blue sweater displayed a hint of a white t-shirt underneath. Some woman must have helped him with his wardrobe. Whoever she was, Susan silently thanked her and hoped that she was long gone.

    At the bottom of the stairs, she looked around. The basement apartment was brightly lit, cozy, and very tidy. She got an impression of dark green upholstered furniture and warm pine accent pieces. A low wall separated the living room from a tiny kitchenette. Two closed doors on the far wall probably hid the bedroom and bathroom.

    “This is a great place.”

    “Thanks.” He motioned for her to sit on the couch. “Make yourself at home. Can I get you something to drink? I have pop, lemonade. I could make coffee?”

    “Lemonade sounds good.”

    She sank into the soft cushions of the couch while he went into the kitchen.

    “How’d you find this apartment?”

    He handed her a glass of lemonade with ice and sat in the armchair across from her. “It found me. When I was in treatment, I met Dick. He became my sponsor, and when I got out, he offered me this apartment and a job on his construction crew.”

    “Was Dick in this treatment center, too?”

    He laughed. “No. He’s been sober for twenty-four years. Every night, the treatment center loaded us into a van and dragged us out to AA meetings. That’s where I met him.”

    “He sounds like a great guy.” Secretly, Susan thought he had to be crazy to let a perfect stranger move into his house.

    “I owe him a lot.”

    She sipped her drink. “Will I get to meet him tonight?”

    “No. He and Carol went to a play. They have season tickets at the Fifth Avenue Theater. They won’t be back until late.”

    “So what about this meeting we’re going to tonight?”

    “It’s an open meeting, which means that people who aren’t alcoholics are welcome to attend. And it’s a speaker meeting, so basically we’re going to sit there and listen to one or two people talk about what it was like when they drank, how they found AA, and what life is like now.”

    “And I’ll get to meet the woman who was Rebecca’s sponsor?”

    He nodded. “Eileen, yeah. She’s always there.”

    “What will she be able to tell us? What does a sponsor do?”

    “Everyone does it differently, but the basic job is to help the person get settled in AA, work the twelve steps, and be there to talk to when things go bad.”

    She grinned. “So everybody’s sponsor doesn’t give them a job and an apartment.”


    Eileen Mackey walked into the dimly lit recreation hall and felt the corners of her mouth curling upward in an automatic smile. After nineteen years of sobriety, she still felt a rush of peace whenever she entered this particular room. All the tension she’d been holding in her shoulders seemed to melt away, which was amazing considering that the budget negotiations had dragged on into the weekend.

    She unbuttoned her suit jacket and dropped her pocketbook on the stage at the front of the large empty hall. The AA meeting wouldn’t start for another thirty minutes, so there were only a few people in the room. Eileen waved hello to a woman putting cookies and apple slices on trays. Her stomach growled. She’d come straight from the office and skipped dinner to be here on time.

    First things first. She strode over to the panel of switches and turned on the rest of the lights. No one had started setting up the chairs yet, so she opened the door to the storage closet. Pulling the first cart of folding chairs from the closet, Eileen knew others would pitch in to help, and she was glad because she couldn’t set up a hundred chairs by herself.

    A middle-aged couple in matching jogging suits joined her immediately. As they unfolded and arranged the metal chairs in rows, they introduced themselves as tourists from Minnesota.

    As other people pitched in to set up chairs, everyone was friendly to the vacationers, and the conversation inevitably turned into a freewheeling review of popular tourist spots. It felt good to be part of a group that went out of its way to welcome people. The squeaks and thumps of the chairs being set up was gradually drowned out by chatter and laughter as more men and women arrived for the meeting.

    The hall had filled with people by the time her helpers had set up the last neat row of chairs. Eileen scanned the crowd, looking for women who looked nervous or who were sitting alone. Making newcomers feel welcome was the best way she knew to thank the woman who had reached out to her when she had come to her first meeting, terrified and embarrassed, at the tender age of twenty-five.

    Movement in the crowd by the door caught her attention, and she felt a warm flush of happiness as she saw Dave enter the hall. He hadn’t been coming to this meeting much since Rebecca’s death. Thinking about her sponsee brought a familiar ache to her heart, but she pushed aside her grief. Dave had taken the death so hard that she certainly didn’t want to remind him of it. She pasted her smile even more firmly on her face and started walking toward him.

    As always, she was struck by his good looks. He was tall and well built, with broad shoulders and an easy loping walk. He had a good face, and his quick, warm smile was one of his best features. He had been an angry, skinny kid when he’d first started coming around, but he’d turned out all right. Dick and Carol had taken him under their wing, and Dave had diligently worked the AA program. He had grown up to be a wonderful man. She felt like a proud mama, but she wasn’t that old yet. Eileen laughed to herself. She must be more worried about her 45th birthday than she realized.

    Dave looked happier than he had since Rebecca died. He touched the arm of the woman walking beside him, and Eileen realized that they were together. Eileen didn’t recognize her. She was tall and walked with a confidence that seemed to indicate she wasn’t another newcomer Dave was bringing to her first meeting. The mystery woman wore jeans and a white blouse with a scooped neckline that showed off her collarbone, and she carried the ensemble off with a casual grace. Her straight brown hair was tucked neatly behind her ears, framing a pretty, cheerful face. Maybe she was the reason for the improvement in Dave’s mood. Eileen’s smile broadened. She couldn’t wait to find out.

    Dave and Eileen hugged as soon as they were within arm’s reach of each other.

    “I’m so glad to see you, Dave!”

    “And you’re just the person we were looking for. Eileen, I’d like you to meet my friend, Susan. We work together.” Dave touched the back of Susan’s shoulder briefly. His manner was solicitous, almost courtly. A friend from work? Surely they were more than that.

    “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Eileen shook Susan’s hand, admiring her firm grip. She instinctively liked this woman.

    “Thank you. Dave speaks highly of you.” Susan had a lovely, low voice.

    “We were hoping that we could talk to you, Eileen. Maybe we could go out for coffee after the meeting?”

    Eileen pressed a hand to her stomach. “How about Denny’s? I skipped dinner, and I’d love to end my day with breakfast.”

    After they settled the details of how they would get to the restaurant, Dave and Susan wove their way through the crush to find seats. Eileen watched them, wondering what they wanted to talk to her about. If Susan needed a sponsor, Dave would have come right out with it. It had to be something else. Just then, her stomach growled, and Eileen realized she had just enough time to grab a few apple slices before the meeting started.

    Susan let Dave lead her to a seat in the middle of a row, nodding absently when he offered to get them both a cup of coffee. This was not what she had expected. She had been floored when she realized that the petite blonde in the power suit and high heels bearing down on them was Eileen, Rebecca’s sponsor. Their hug had sent an uncomfortable twinge of jealousy through her chest. Susan wasn’t ready to admit how much she wanted Dave, but she would like to find out what it felt like to be wrapped in his arms before she had to watch another woman help herself.

    To distract herself from that image, she scanned the room. She was in an attractive recreation hall at a large church somewhere in Redmond. Exposed wooden beams emphasized the vaulted ceiling. Windows lined the walls on two sides of the room and reflected the images of the laughing, talking crowd who surrounded her. It was like a cocktail party without the cocktails. Some people were dressed up, but most were in casual clothes. A few teenagers huddled together, and everyone else seemed to be somewhere between twenty and sixty.

    Susan had prepared herself to smile kindly at scruffy, sickly people struggling to get off booze, and she was downright shocked at the prosperity, happiness, and health in the room around her. She mentally kicked herself. Why had she expected a room full of bums when she knew Dave wasn’t a bum?

    A gray-haired woman in tailored tan slacks and a fluffy pink cardigan sat in the chair next to Susan and extended a wrinkled hand with swollen knuckles.

    “Hi, my name is Delores. Are you new?”

    Susan shook the woman’s hand gently. “Hello. I’m Susan.” Something about the kind, understanding expression in the woman’s faded blue eyes made Susan uncharacteristically feel the need to explain herself. She didn’t want to mislead anyone. “I’m just visiting with a friend. I’m not an alcoholic.”

    Delores patted her on the knee. “That’s okay, honey. That’s what I said at the beginning, too.”

    Susan opened her mouth to correct her, but started to laugh instead. There was no arguing with that kind of logic. Delores winked at her, making Susan feel completely welcome.

    Dave slid onto the seat next to her and handed her a cup of coffee. “The meeting is about to start.”

    Once the young man at the podium opened the meeting, almost everyone stopped chatting. There was enthusiastic applause when the first speaker was introduced. Susan was shocked at the story the woman told. There she was in a lovely blue dress, telling everyone about losing her husband and kids because she couldn’t stop drinking. The audience roared with laughter when she talked about showing up drunk for a custody hearing. Susan shook her head. This was awful stuff, not the least bit funny.

    When the woman started talking about finding AA, Susan was amazed at the way her life had turned around. After a few years, her family had come back and she’d started a new career. She also talked a lot about God.

    After awhile, Susan tuned out the speaker. She sipped her coffee, which was surprisingly good even though it had cooled off. Dave listened intently, chuckling along with the rest of the audience. During the drive here, he had told Susan that Rebecca attended this meeting with him almost every week. She’d been trying hard to stay sober. Susan hoped they didn’t find out that she had started using drugs. It would really hurt Dave.

    Denny’s was bustling with a late night crowd, but the hostess managed to find them a quiet booth tucked away in the back. Susan ordered a short stack of pancakes and grinned as her companions ordered huge breakfasts. Dave’s appetite she could understand, but she was looking forward to seeing tiny little Eileen put away a four egg omelet.

    When the waitress left them, Susan jumped right in with her questions. “I was hoping you could tell me about Rebecca.”

    Eileen sent a searching look toward Dave, her face a mask of concern.

    “This was my idea, Eileen.” He told her all about the threatening notes and their suspicions about Patty and Ken.

    “Oh, this all seems so farfetched.” Eileen said it very gently, placing a hand on Dave’s forearm. “It hurts me, too, to think she relapsed, but it happens.”

    “But Special K? What the hell would Rebecca be doing with a drug like that?”

    Eileen shrugged. “There’s no predicting what will happen when someone relapses. I’ve known people who went straight to heroin after ten years of sobriety.”

    He put his large, tanned hand on top of hers. These two were a lot closer than Susan had originally thought.

    “I know it sounds crazy, Eileen, but I think we’re on to something.”

    Eileen sighed and pulled her hand away from Dave. “If we were in a court of law, I wouldn’t be able to claim doctor/patient privilege. But I still don’t feel comfortable telling you everything she told me. You sponsor people, Dave. Would you feel good about blabbing all their secrets?”

    “This is different. Rebecca’s dead. I think she would want you to help us.”

    Inexplicably, Eileen grinned. “You think so? But she often went out of her way to be difficult, didn’t she?”

    Susan couldn’t just sit there quietly any longer. “I don’t want to hear all her secrets. Did she say anything unusual? Something that stands out now that we’ve told you that someone might have pushed her down the stairs?”

    Their food arrived, and there was a great shuffling of coffee cups and silverware to make room.

    Eileen picked up her fork and said, “Let me think about it,” before digging into her omelet.

    Susan and Dave exchanged a look. His shrug seemed to say to her, “We’ll see what happens.”

    Susan attacked her pancakes, hungrier than she thought she’d be.

    When Eileen had finally cleaned her plate, she set down her fork and looked Susan straight in the eye. “Rebecca did seem obsessed with Step Nine.”

    “Step Nine?”

    Dave recited, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

    “Which means what?”

    Eileen took up the explanation. “In Step Eight, you make a list of all the people you have ever harmed, and in Step Nine, you make amends to them all.”

    “Making amends is like apologizing?” Susan felt like she was listening to another language. AA seemed to require a lot of jargon.

    Eileen nodded. “Saying you’re sorry, reimbursing people, promising never to do it again, stuff like that.”

    “And that made Rebecca nervous?”

    “That makes everyone nervous,” Dave interjected.

    Eileen laughed. “You’re right, but she was really bothered by it. Let me try to remember what she said.” She pressed her fingers to her temples and closed her eyes.

    Amused, Susan winked at Dave.

    “Arm twisting.” Eileen opened her eyes. “She said she hadn’t really hurt this one particular person, that she had just threatened to hurt him to get what she wanted. She wanted to know if she had to apologize for something like that.”

    “Did she say whose arm she twisted?”

    Eileen shook her head. “No. But I’m pretty sure she meant a man.”

    That ruled out Patty, Susan thought. Darn. “Was there anything else?”

    Eileen winced. “You know how Step Nine says you don’t have to make the amends if it’s going to injure the other person?” Susan and Dave nodded. “Well, she asked me if you have to do it if you might be injured.”

    Susan gasped. This was the first hint they’d had that Rebecca had been afraid. “What did you say to her?”

    “I told her to stop worrying about Step Nine. She was only on Step Three, for goodness sake. I told her I didn’t want to talk about it again until she was further along in her steps.”

    She was obviously upset, and Susan felt sorry for her. Dave patted her shoulder. “There’s no way you could have known.”

    “I should have listened to her.”

    “You did listen to her.”

    Eileen nodded. Then she pulled herself together and smiled brightly at Susan. “Let’s talk about something else. Susan, do you follow baseball at all?”

    Susan grinned. “I love the new stadium. But I haven’t heard anything about the Mariners yet. Isn’t it too early?”

    The sparkle returned to Eileen’s face. “Spring training has already started.”

    After a few minutes, Dave excused himself from the table. There was a comfortable lull in the conversation while Eileen pulled out a small mirror compact and reapplied her lipstick. She closed the compact with a soft click.

    “He likes you a lot, you know.”

    Susan laughed, surprised at Eileen’s candor. “I like him too. He’s a great guy.”

    “And he’ll probably stay that way if he keeps working as hard on his AA program as he does today.”

    Susan glanced around the restaurant, but no one seemed to be listening to them. “Will he ever get to the point where he doesn’t have to keep going to those meetings?”

    Eileen gave a short laugh. “Some people think so. Eventually they forget that they’re alcoholics, and they end up drunk again and lose everything. Personally, I’m planning on staying active in AA for the rest of my life.”

    Susan nodded slowly, letting this news sink in.

    The waitress reappeared, scooping up all the dirty plates. “Everything okay, ladies? Can I get you anything else?”

    Eileen raised her eyebrows at Susan, and she answered by shaking her head. She was fine. Eileen took over, beaming at the waitress. “We’re all set. I would like you to tell the cook that the eggs were wonderful, and the bacon was perfect.”

    Susan watched the waitress’s expression transform from a pleasant, professional smile into an authentic grin. The woman said something about her boyfriend, the cook, doing his best and then she hurried away with her armload of dishes presumably to give him and the manager the compliment.

    Eileen dug in her purse, seemingly unaware that she had just made the waitress’s day. She pulled out a black leather wallet so battered and worn that it was held together with a rubber band. Susan looked from the wallet to the silk blouse, gold bracelets, glittering diamond wedding band set, and tried to reconcile them. She couldn’t.

    “What about your husband? Is he in the program, too?”

    “My Peter? He’s not an alcoholic.” She pulled out a twenty and dropped the wallet back into the purse. “He’s actually quite a wine connoisseur.” She tucked a lock of ash blonde hair behind her ear, suddenly looking girlish despite the laugh lines around her eyes. “He’s in Boston this week, and I miss him.”

    “Have you been married long?”

    Eileen folded her hands in her lap, sat up straight, and smiled pleasantly. “Ten years.”

    “What does he do?” Even to Susan’s ears, it started to sound like an interrogation, but Eileen didn’t seem to mind.

    “He’s a doctor. His practice moved into one of the high rises I manage in downtown Seattle, and we got to know each other during a fire drill.” An earthy expression flashed across her face so quickly that Susan wondered if she had really seen it.

    “If you keep coming to the Saturday night meeting with Dave, you might meet Peter. He comes to birthday night every now and then.”

    “Oh, I don’t know if I’ll be back.” Susan felt heat creep up her cheeks. It was awkward with Eileen assuming she and Dave were an item, or about to become one.

    Eileen leaned forward and patted her hand. “You’re really just getting to know each other, aren’t you? Just take it one step at a time, and you’ll eventually know what you want.”

    Susan smiled at Eileen, feeling strangely reassured.

    Dave’s cheerful voice broke the moment. “You can put your money away, Eileen. I’ve already paid the bill. If you’re ready, maybe we should go. It’s 11:30, and I have to get Cinderella home before midnight.”

    It had started drizzling, so they waved goodbye to Eileen and jogged to Dave’s truck. He unlocked her door and opened it, then ran around and let himself in on the driver’s side. They were quiet for most of the drive back to his place in Woodinville, where they’d left her car. Susan was bone tired, comfortably full, and ready to crawl into bed.

    Dave pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine while she fished around in her purse for her car keys. When she looked up to say goodnight, she was surprised to see how close he was. She felt that familiar, nerve-jangling spark of attraction shoot through her. If she wanted to, she could lean over and kiss him.

    For a moment she let herself imagine what it would be like.

    Susan shook off the feeling, surprised at herself. Tonight hadn’t been a date. She’d made sure of that by telling him she was celibate. And no matter what Eileen said, his alcoholism was a complication she didn’t need.

    She practically threw herself out the passenger door. Both feet landed on the gravel driveway with a crunch. He came around the front of the truck as she was letting herself into her car.

    “I learned a lot tonight,” she said lightly from behind the open door of her car. “Thanks for inviting me.”

    “You’re welcome.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’ll think about what Eileen told us, see if I can figure out who Rebecca might have threatened at work.”

    He stood in the driveway and watched her as she backed out.



    Chapter 17


    Susan was still in bed, reading a mystery novel, when Dave called her late Sunday morning. Chris yelled upstairs, and she picked up the extension.

    “I thought about who Rebecca might have threatened, and I came up with someone we forgot all about.”


    “Brian Carney, one of the engineers she worked with. He walked away from ESS right after she died.”

    “Yeah, I saw him stomp about of HR the day he quit.” Susan stifled a yawn. “So do you know where he went?”

    “Back home to Yakima.”

    That was a couple of hours drive from here. “You going to phone him?” she asked hopefully.

    “No. I want to talk to him in person. What do you say, you want to take a field trip this Saturday? Unless you already have plans,” he tacked on quickly.

    “I’m free on Saturday. I could go with you.” She didn’t want to drive all that way on a wild goose chase, but she owed him the courtesy. Dave had listened to all her crazy theories. Plus, it would be fun to hang out with him.

    “Great! I can pick you up early in the morning, so it won’t take the whole day.”

    Ugh, she hoped it wasn’t too early. “Hey, I ought to fill you in on my plans.” Susan looked at the cover of the novel she was reading. For the last ten pages, the hero had been quietly following his main suspect through the dark, foggy streets of London. It sounded like quite an adventure.

    “Tomorrow night is the monthly STC meeting. According to Patty’s personal calendar, that’s where she was the night Rebecca died. But my STC friend says Patty wasn’t there. So I’m going to follow her this Tuesday night. I don’t think she’ll go to the meeting. I think she’ll probably do whatever it was she did last month.”

    “And you’ll be there to catch her?”


    “I feel sorry for the woman.”


    Chapter 18


    Melanie sat at one of the weather-beaten picnic tables tucked away along the side of the brick building. She was turning a pack of Virginia Slims over in her hands, delaying her next cigarette. This would be her third for the day. She cursed the habit, but she had to keep her cool for this meeting and nicotine gum just wasn’t going to do the trick.

    She lit up, savoring the taste and feel of the smoke as it filled her lungs. When she exhaled, the shakiness in her hands went out with the smoke.

    A line of evergreens protected the picnic tables from the street and the parking lot. Melanie let her gaze travel all the way up to where they touched the sky, a sky that was for once bright blue and cloudless. It felt as though it had been raining the whole two years she’d been in the Pacific Northwest. Today the sun was out, and she was soaking up every drop of sunshine that she could, even though it was a pale imitation of the pounding Georgia sun.

    Hugh Nichols’ voice floated around the corner of the building and she looked up to see him walking toward her with Susan Miles hanging on his every word. Melanie felt the familiar angry flood of adrenaline surge through her body. Her right foot started tapping the grass under the table.

    Susan was dressed like an engineer in jeans, sneakers, and baggy t-shirt. Her expression was one of pleasant interest and curiosity, which was the same look she’d had right before she’d stolen Melanie’s web page right out from under her. Sitting through that demo had been torture. Melanie had been embarrassed at being shown up, but she also felt betrayed by Tom, who had seemed to know what was coming but who hadn’t had the common decency to warn her.

    Hugh was more trustworthy than Tom. She’d worked with him more often, and they’d spent a lot of time out here smoking and shooting the breeze. Some women whined about not being able to get in on the deals made in men’s rooms, but Melanie knew just as many plans were finalized among exiled smokers.

    Hugh was wearing his black leather jacket over his classic engineer’s white button-down. He was one of those older guys who just gets better with age, no longer competitive or ego driven, just there to do a good job and enjoy the ride. He had to be in his late forties, much older than anyone else in the company, but his short cropped hair and leather jacket kept him looking current.

    Hugh and Susan reached the table. He sat next to Melanie, and Susan sat across from them. Melanie hoped Susan felt ganged up on, but she just smiled cheerily as she fussed with the big stack of papers she’d carried out with her.

    Melanie took a deep drag off her cigarette and blew the smoke in Susan’s direction. Hugh was digging around in a pocket for his Camels. When he had called that morning to set up the meeting, he’d made it clear it was just an opportunity for a company-sanctioned smoke break.

    Susan didn’t complain about the smoke; instead, she just kept smiling at Hugh as he prattled on about how rugged and portable the Wilson Electronics bar code printer was and how well it had held up during their field tests in the rain.

    Melanie didn’t bother listening. This project should have been a breeze, but there had been a few technical glitches with the printer and some real problems with the documentation. Basically, the user manual sucked. The book used common industry terminology all wrong, as if some junior contract writer with no bar code experience had dashed it off one weekend. Melanie had refused to change her marketing copy to emulate the crap in the manual. She had even written a memo demanding that the book be revised. But lazy little Rebecca had raised a stink about the schedule until management caved in. Melanie had been furious. She ground out her cigarette in the only ashtray on the picnic table, a metal can filled with sand. Both this project and Susan reminded her of her failures.

    Hugh was wrapping up his monologue. “The purpose of this meeting is to get you to buy in on the schedule and make sure we all know each other since you’re new.”

    Melanie crossed her arms and spoke with the same imperious tone she used to correct salesgirls and dates who became too friendly. “We’ve met.”

    Hugh raised his eyebrows questioningly. He probably had no idea why she disliked Susan, but she didn’t care. She certainly wasn’t going to admit that she had let the new kid on the block steal her little red wagon.

    A breeze blew through the evergreens, and Susan dropped her hands lightly to hold her papers down on the scarred wood surface of the picnic table. “I’ve already looked over the notes from the previous writer. I can commit to the original schedule.”

    Hugh looked pleased.

    “However,” Susan went on, “I do have an issue I’d like to bring up.”

    Melanie’s eyes narrowed and her right foot tapped double time with nervous energy. Marketing wasn’t going to give in on any issue, no matter how small. Too many compromises had already doomed the project. Anything else, and they may as well dump the printers in the trash.

    “I have to disagree with the previous writer’s decision not to revise the printer manual.” Susan’s voice took on a persuasive tone. “There are too many problems with terminology. If we don’t revise, customers are going to have a hard time figuring out how to use this printer. Technical support will be flooded with calls.”

    Melanie’s right foot stopped tapping. She couldn’t believe her ears. These were exactly the arguments she and Hugh had used on Rebecca months ago. What was Susan doing? The way Rebecca had left things, all Susan had to do was slap a new cover on the book and move onto another project. Melanie put her elbows on the table and leaned forward to hear more.

    Susan pulled a sheet of paper from her folder. “This old memo from marketing explains in detail what should be done to bring the book up to our standards.” She made eye contact with Melanie. “It’s your memo, actually. Your suggestions were right on the money.”

    Melanie nodded slowly in agreement.

    “As a matter of fact, I’ve already made all the changes you suggested.” Susan slid a thick stack of paper across the picnic table to Melanie. “Here, I printed you a copy.”

    Melanie flipped through the printer manual, dumbfounded. She wasn’t kidding. She really had corrected all the terminology. Melanie gaped at the writer, completely at a loss as to what she should think. Was this the same woman who’d made her look like a jerk last week?

    Susan shot an apologetic glance at Hugh. “I probably should have asked permission first, but it was Saturday, and you weren’t around.”

    A grin temporarily disturbed his placid expression. “Who am I to complain?”

    Susan nodded and stuffed her papers back into the folder. “When I get back to my office, I’ll email the top guy in Tech Pubs, Mark Eastman, to let him know we decided to follow your plan. I’d like to copy your manager,” she glanced at Melanie, “but I’m not sure who you report to.”

    Oh, that would come in handy during her next performance review! Melanie practically shouted, “Larry Whitfield.” As Susan wrote his name down, Melanie suddenly understood what had just happened. Susan was trying to make up for the web page fiasco. And she had, without a doubt. Especially since Melanie had known all along that it was really Philip’s fault, not Susan’s.

    Melanie chose her next words carefully, hoping to convey an apology about her behavior over the web page without actually having to say it. “I think this shows that we don’t have to live with the negative results of other people’s bad decisions.”

    Susan bobbed her head. “Absolutely.”

    They grinned at each other across the table. Hugh’s shoulders dropped an inch or two, and Melanie realized he’d been holding himself pretty tight, ready for trouble. Embarrassment fluttered in her chest as the thought occurred to her that she’d been acting so crazed that the people around her were on guard. Melanie pushed the thought away. She’d been a bitch all last week, craving nicotine, but she hadn’t been that bad.

    Hugh offered Susan his pack of Camels. She paused, then reached for the pack and pulled out a cigarette.

    “You smoke?” Melanie couldn’t believe it. How many times would she have to rearrange her opinion of this woman?

    Susan shrugged. “I used to.” She waved off Hugh’s offer of a lighter and began shredding the cigarette, turning it into a pile of brown leaves and scraps of white paper.

    Melanie stared at the destruction, dumbfounded, until she recognized the exercise and started laughing.

    “I think we went to the same stop smoking class.” She tipped her own pack to get at her fourth cigarette for the day. “But this Georgia peach just couldn’t be hypnotized.”

    Hugh grabbed his pack of Camels from the table. He cupped a hand around them protectively and held the pack to his chest. “I’m not ready to quit yet.”



    Chapter 19


    Roger wasn’t exactly his usual picture of elegance this morning. He leaned over the sink, one hand holding his silk tie out of the way, while he devoured a Pop Tart and dribbled crumbs down the drain.

    Susan paused in the doorway to the kitchen, amazed that this was how the man ate when no one was around. “Good morning, Roger. I need to ask you a favor.”

    With his mouth full, he grunted an inquiry at her.

    She smiled at him with all the charm she could muster before her first cup of coffee. “Please don’t take the trash out tonight.”

    His eyebrows went up, and he kept chewing.

    She held up her right hand as if in court. “I promise to bring it all out to the curb really early tomorrow morning before the garbage men get here.”

    He took a big sip of coffee and washed the rest of his breakfast down. “Why? You don’t like the way I do it?”

    She didn’t want to tell him their trash had been raided last week. Dave certainly hadn’t reacted the way she’d expected him to. If Roger thought she’d brought danger to the house, he might ask her to move out. A clever half-truth popped into her head.

    “You do a lovely job. It’s just that I’ll be out pretty late tonight, and I won’t be able to take care of the wastebaskets upstairs.”

    His mouth pursed up like a little old lady’s. The thought of her bathroom trash got him every time. “Fine with me. Just don’t forget, or you’ll be driving it over to the transfer station yourself.”

    “Thank you.” She sat down at the table and started pulling on her black high-top sneakers.

    He scowled at her. “Why are you dressed like a ninja? What exactly are you doing tonight?”

    Susan looked down at her black jeans and black long-sleeved t-shirt. Maybe she’d gone overboard, but she wasn’t familiar with the dress code for tailing a suspect. She’d even swapped cars with Stephanie, in case Patty recognized her Camry.

    “I’m, ah, just expressing my youthful rebelliousness,” she lied. “Wouldn’t want the folks at ESS to think I’m too mainstream.”

    The bright lights around entrance to the Bellevue Conference Center were not strong enough to completely push back the night from the corner where Susan had stationed herself. She was in shadow, but not completely hidden.

    She leaned against the wall, watching people go in and wondering what to do now. Ten minutes ago, Patty had gone into the STC meeting just as she said she would. She had no secret destination; there was no mystery to solve. Susan’s shoulders slumped. At this rate, she’d never find out what Patty was doing the night Rebecca died.

    A knot of women approached the conference center, talking loudly and laughing. One of them glanced at her. Susan realized she was too conspicuous standing by the door. Someone she knew might see her and expect her to go in with them. She didn’t want that. It was time to call it a night.

    The conference center door swung open and Patty slipped out. She walked quickly along the front of the building and disappeared around the corner. Susan felt a rush of victory. Her quarry was on the move. The question was, where was she going? She obviously hadn’t come out for a smoke because all the smokers were clustered at the end of the walkway around a cement ashtray.

    Susan counted to ten and went after her. Patty’s boots clicked against the pavement, and Susan was glad she’d worn sneakers. Patty cut straight through the conference center’s parking lot, heading for 108th street. It was already dark, so Susan wasn’t worried about being seen. Every sense was alert with excitement. Patty obviously had made an appearance at the STC meeting, signed in, and then split.

    Patty paused at the curb before running across 108th and heading north. Susan stayed on the far side of the street. The object of her pursuit stopped in front of a tavern, ripped off her wrist braces and shoved them into her jacket pocket before pulling open the wooden door and going in.

    Susan kept walking until she was directly across from the bar. She’d never been in there; she’d never even noticed it before. It was a small building set off by itself with lights illuminating the sign that read Sloane’s Tavern. Large windows filled with neon beer signs were set too high in the wall for a good view inside.

    She watched the door for a few minutes. She had to go in and find out what Patty was up to. Maybe she was a drunk like Rebecca and had to get a few shots in her before sitting through an STC meeting.

    The street was empty but she didn’t cross. The idea that she ought to call Dave stopped her from going into Sloane’s immediately. She owed it to him. He had invited her to go to Yakima with him to talk to Brian. This was her chance to reciprocate.

    She pulled out her cell phone and punched in his home number before remembering that he was an alcoholic. Maybe he wasn’t allowed to go into bars. She paused before pushing the send button. She might be putting his sobriety in danger by inviting him here. What would she do if they went in there and he ordered a drink?

    That was ridiculous. If it wasn’t safe for him to go into a bar, he’d say so. He seemed stable enough. She pushed the send button and strolled down the street a bit. She might not be as conspicuous if she weren’t standing directly across from the tavern staring at it. She obviously had a lot to learn about staking out a joint.

    On the third ring, she exhaled in frustration. “Come on, Dave, pick up.”

    She hoped he would come. She never liked going into a strange bar alone, and she wanted some moral support in case she walked in and bumped right into Patty.

    Dave hung up the phone and took the stairs two at a time. At this time of night, it would probably take him twenty-five minutes to get to Bellevue.

    “What’s up?” Dick muted the TV and peered over the back of the couch. The two guys with him just kept staring at the silent basketball game, devouring popcorn.

    Dave quickly outlined what was going on.

    “You got your coin?” When Dave nodded, Dick said gruffly, “Well, you know what to do with it.” He turned back to the game.

    Dave grinned and cut through the kitchen to the back door. Yeah, he knew what to do with it. When he’d gotten his first AA chip, someone told him that if he wanted a drink he had to drop the chip in. If it dissolved, he could have the drink. Dave patted his front jeans pocket. The heavy metal coin he’d gotten for his seventh year of sobriety was in there as usual. And it wouldn’t be dissolving anytime soon.

    Dave found Sloane’s easily and pulled into the dark parking lot. He could hear music leaking out of the building. Susan was nowhere in sight. Damn it. She must have gotten tired of waiting and gone in without him. Or maybe Patty left, and Susan had followed her. Either way, he’d have to go in.

    He locked up the truck and headed for the door. Luckily, he hadn’t been much of a bar drinker, so this little visit wasn’t going to bring back any memories.

    A sports car pulled into the lot behind him, blasting music. Two young guys jumped out and trotted past Dave to the door of the tavern. He hoped this wasn’t a rowdy place.

    He pulled himself a little taller and threw back his shoulders. His gait changed, becoming a bit more of a strut than a stroll. He was a big guy, and no one was going to mess with him. A few feet from the door, he looked around once more but didn’t spot Susan in the bushes or on the street.

    “Susan, now that’s a nice old-fashioned name. Is that the kind of girl you are?” Buddy knew that wasn’t a good line the minute it was out of his mouth, because old-fashioned girls always said no to guys like him.

    She just looked at him. She hadn’t told him to go to hell yet, so that was a good sign. He smoothed back his hair, hoping it didn’t look as greasy as it felt. Her hair was clean and shiny, and she was pretty even though she didn’t have any makeup on. He liked lipstick on a woman.

    “You seem more like one of them modern girls, know what you want and not afraid to ask for it.” He put an elbow on the bar and slumped toward her with what he hoped was a sexy smile. Truth was, the tequila had gone to his head. It was always harder to stay upright once the room started spinning.

    “Robert, would you mind sitting back up?” She grabbed his shoulder and propped him up. “You were doing a great job of blocking that light from glaring right into my eyes.”

    He shook off her hand. He was glad he hadn’t offered to buy her a drink if she was going to treat him that way. Buddy reached into his front pocket, trying to figure out how much money he had left. If she ever finished her first damned beer, he was going to talk her into buying the next round.

    A cheer went up from the other end of the bar. Buddy turned to look. One of the muscle-bound guys had hoisted the little blonde up and people were clapping. Susan was watching, too. She’d been pretty interested in the darts game the whole time she’d been in there, and she’d been keeping an eye on the action even while he’d been trying to pick her up. The idea that he didn’t even have her full attention soured Buddy’s stomach.

    “You can’t win,” he muttered, “so don’t even bother.” He looked at his hands gripping the edge of the bar. He ought to have cleaned his nails before coming in.


    “You’ve been scouting out the competition. Maybe you’re a darts player yourself. But I’m telling you not to bother. The little blonde wins all the time.” He really had Susan’s attention now, and it felt great to have those chocolate brown eyes trained on his. They made the room stand still.

    “She’s got the best form I’ve ever seen.”

    Her eyebrows shot up, and he realized she thought he was talking about the woman’s figure.

    “No, I mean her hands.” He pantomimed the act of holding and tossing a dart. “She has the best release I’ve ever seen.”

    “So she’s in here a lot?”

    Buddy thought about how to answer that. He was in here every day he had cash, but that wasn’t the kind of thing you told a girl until she was a little more attached to you. Before he could answer, Susan looked up over his shoulder with a big welcoming smile for somebody else.

    Buddy wasn’t letting anyone horn in on his conversation with her now that he’d finally managed to get her talking, so he spun around on his bar stool. A big guy in blue plaid stood close behind him, saying hello to Susan. The room had resumed its lazy orbit, and it took a few seconds for Buddy to focus on the interloper’s face.

    “Hey, Buddy, how you doing?”

    The voice was familiar. Brown hair, wire glasses… His jaw dropped. “Dave?” This guy had been his sponsor when he was going to those AA meetings and getting his court slip signed. What the hell was Dave doing in a place like this?

    He felt a tug on his sleeve. “Hey, you told me your name was Robert.”

    Buddy looked at Susan blankly for a second, then turned back to Dave. “You’re not drinking, are you? That’d be a damned shame.”

    Dave shook his head. “I’m not drinking, Buddy.” He looked over Buddy’s head and said, “Black coffee.”

    Dave looked the same, clean-cut, alert, not at all fuzzy around the edges. Buddy suddenly realized what a mess he was in comparison. He’d fallen off the wagon hard and hadn’t tried to get back. A panicky feeling rumbled through his gut. He wasn’t ready to go back. He was still having a fine time. He wrapped his hand around his half-full glass and prepared to make his escape.

    “This your girl, Dave?” Buddy slid off the stool and started backing away. “She’s real sweet, been keeping me company.” He raised his glass in a salute. “See you, man.” Then he hustled to the far end of the bar, hoping to disappear into the crowd. Dealing with yuppie dart players was preferable to facing down Dave.

    The bartender wiped off Buddy’s spot and put Dave’s coffee down. Dave slid onto the bar stool so he faced Susan. If he kept his back to the darts tournament, chances were that Patty wouldn’t notice them watching her. It helped that this end of the bar was dimly lit.

    “Thanks for coming.”

    He smiled at her. He hadn’t seen her right away when he’d walked in, and he’d started worrying. But he’d seen Patty and headed quickly away from her and her friends and practically tripped over Buddy of all people.

    “I’m glad you called. What have I missed?” He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip. It was good. He didn’t put the cup down. It gave him something to hang on to.

    “No trouble with carpal tunnel tonight. She’s been tossing darts like a pro. I saw her pull off her wrist braces just before she came in.”

    Susan looked very comfortable on the bar stool. One hand curled delicately around her glass. When she leaned a little toward him so he could hear her whisper, he could smell the beer on her breath. He turned his face away. She didn’t seem to notice.

    “So she’s faking her wrist injury.”

    Susan nodded. “Which leads me to think she might have faked her back injury last year, too. But that’s not the best part. The night Rebecca died, Patty was supposed to be at the monthly STC meeting. There’s one tonight, that’s why I followed her. She’s supposed to be there right now.”

    Susan looked triumphant. “But she’s not, is she? She walked out after five minutes. She could have done that the night of the murder, too.”

    He shifted the coffee cup to his other hand to avoid burning himself. Susan leaned around him to peer at the darts players. Her hair was tucked neatly behind her ear, showing off a small gold hoop.

    She was so sure she’d found the killer. He hated to point out the flaws in her theory, but he leaned close and whispered, “None of that makes her a murderer.”

    She took the last sip from her glass and crossed her arms. “It proves that she is doing some very dishonest things. And sometimes people like that are forced to take extreme actions to protect themselves.”

    That was a good point. He still couldn’t believe that Patty would have pushed Rebecca down the stairs, but then again, he wouldn’t have believed she was faking that annoying wrist injury either. Until tonight.

    The bartender appeared and looked pointedly at Susan’s glass. She smiled, asked for a diet pop, and pushed a ten dollar bill toward the gutter along the inside of the bar.

    Susan glanced back down to the far end of the bar and her eyes widened. Dave looked. Patty was standing there with a huge grin frozen on her face as she stared back at them. A blue ribbon was pinned to her chest, and a guy in a yellow rugby shirt had an arm around her shoulders.

    “Oh no.” Susan ducked to hide behind Dave, but it was obviously too late. “We’re bagged.”

    Dave looked back over his shoulder to see Patty’s reaction, but she was already gone. Rugby Shirt stood there holding two beers, looking for Patty, too.

    Dave grabbed Susan’s hand. “Let’s go.”

    He pulled her off the stool and headed for the door. They burst into the cool night air, and Dave realized how stuffy it had been in there. He took a deep breath to clear his lungs of the stink of the bar.

    “I don’t see her anywhere.” Susan was scanning the parking lot and street. She sounded frustrated. She took a few steps forward, dragging Dave’s arm with her. He realized he was still holding her hand. He let go.

    “It’s probably better this way. What would you say to her anyway?” His voice rose. “Hiya, Patty! I’ve been stalking you because I think you’re a killer. Care to confess?”

    She grinned, but her face quickly twisted into a frown. “She really might be the one, Dave.” The humor had gone out of her eyes. “Let’s go back in. I want to ask the bartender if Patty was here the night Rebecca died.”

    Dave held the door for her, and Susan stepped back into the bar. Robert--no, Buddy--was back in the same seat as before. He was hunched over his glass and there were empty seats on both sides of him; probably, Susan thought, because he smelled so bad.

    The darts tournament had ended, and it seemed like everyone at that end of the bar had settled down with fresh drinks to rehash the contest.

    As they approached Buddy, Dave pointed from Susan to the barstool on Buddy’s right, and then from himself to the stool on the left.

    Then he winked. Susan grinned. Buddy didn’t stand a chance.

    “Hi, Buddy.” Susan slid onto the stool next to him. His head snapped up and he leered at her.

    “You came back to me.”

    Dave slid onto the barstool to Buddy’s left. “Hi, Buddy.”

    Buddy’s head whipped around so fast, Susan worried they were going to have to get him to a chiropractor.

    “Not you too,” he moaned, slumping back over the empty glass cradled in his hands.

    Susan looked at Dave, whose expression was mischievous and sad.

    He patted Buddy’s shoulder. “I’m not going to try to talk you out of here. I was just hoping you could give us some information.”

    “Oh yeah?” Buddy’s voice had an edge to it now. He sat at attention like an old dog who senses a bone might be coming his way.

    “You know the blonde who won the tournament tonight, Buddy?” Susan had to jump into the action. “How often is she in here? Was she here on March third?”

    Buddy squinted at her, scratched his chin, and appeared to become lost in thought.

    Susan looked into the mirror that stretched the length of the bar, catching Dave’s gaze. She wasn’t sure if she ought to nudge Buddy to get him restarted, but Dave just shrugged. He didn’t seem worried.


    He cleared his throat loudly, and then spoke in such a raspy voice Susan knew he had to be faking it.

    “I’d like to help you out…” His voice trailed off.

    “But?” Dave sounded impatient.

    “But I’m just so thirsty.” Buddy held up his empty glass and wagged it back and forth.

    Susan couldn’t help but grin. The guy was shameless. But Dave wasn’t grinning. He’d leaned away from Buddy and crossed his arms. Furrows appeared on his forehead.

    “There’s no way I’m buying you a drink.”

    Susan wasn’t sure what the AA rules were, but it was clear Dave wouldn’t use liquor to bribe Buddy, no matter what information he had.

    Buddy swiveled toward her, almost spinning himself right off his seat.

    “What about you? Can you help out a friend?” He patted his shirt pocket. “I’m tapped out.”

    Susan tried to breathe shallowly so she wouldn’t inhale too much of Buddy’s breath. Before she could answer, she saw the expression on Dave’s face change. He looked furious for a second before his face went slack. He didn’t want her to buy Buddy a drink, but he wasn’t going to say anything.

    She looked at Buddy, who was sitting absolutely motionless with a practiced look of neediness frozen on his face. He could probably hold that position for hours until he got what he wanted.

    The bartender stepped up as if anticipating an order. Susan waved him away.

    “You’re too skinny, Buddy. How about I buy you dinner instead?”

    “Oh, Christ.”

    “Great idea.” Dave clapped him on the shoulder and smiled broadly at Susan. Her heart skipped a beat. “Let’s go to Denny’s.”

    Buddy was grumbling, but he’d go along. Susan slipped off her stool, leaving Dave to get Buddy moving.

    She walked over to where the bartender was clearing away dirty glasses. She stood between two stools and leaned toward him. “Excuse me. Maybe you can help me.”

    As she spoke, she pulled a crisp twenty from her jeans pocket and slid it toward him.

    The bill sat on the bar. He looked at it and then into her eyes.

    He didn’t take the money. Susan fought the urge to look away. This always worked in the movies.

    He must have given up waiting for her to figure it out, because he finally said, “Depends what you want, lady.”

    Relief washed over her. “Just a little information. What do you know about the blond woman who won the tournament tonight?”

    He picked up the twenty and stuffed it into his pocket in one smooth motion as he bent down to grab something from under the bar.

    Susan felt a twinge of panic. Maybe he was the president of Patty’s fan club and he was going to whack her.

    Instead, he slapped a yellow printed sheet of paper in front of her. It looked like an amateur newsletter.

    Susan picked it up. The grainy black and white photo near the bottom showed Patty holding a trophy.

    Susan looked up, grinning. “Were you working Tuesday night, March third?”

    He thought about it for a few seconds. “Nope.”

    After wolfing down a huge dinner at an all-night restaurant, Buddy walked off into the darkness, staggering a little every few steps he took. The man was not drunk enough to go home. He would probably wander around until he found some action. Dave sighed. There was nothing he could do about that.

    Dave nodded in the general vicinity of the parking lot. “May I drive you back to your car, ma’am?”

    She took his arm. “Lead on, kind sir.”

    His flesh tingled under her hands, and he was aware of the soft press of her breast against him. This was the first time she’d ever touched him like this, and he hoped it wasn’t the alcohol talking. It couldn’t be. She’d finished that one beer over an hour and a half ago.

    He delivered her to the passenger side of his truck. She let go of him so he could unlock and open the door for her. As he walked around to the driver’s side, he missed the feel of her against him. He felt more attracted to her now than ever, but he couldn’t tell how she felt. Or what she was thinking. She sure didn’t seem like a woman who wanted to stay celibate until August.

    He climbed in and inserted the key into the ignition but didn’t start the truck.

    “I’m really glad you came when I called you.”

    “Hey,” he said lightly, “call me anytime.” Silence. She wasn’t picking up on his hint.

    “You know, Patty probably thinks she caught us out on a date.”

    “Huh?” His head spun.

    She put her hand on his arm. “What else would it look like? We were cuddling together at the bar. We must have looked like we were on a date.”

    “So when we stared at her with our jaws hanging open--”

    She finished his thought. “She assumed it was because we’d been found out!”

    He laughed. “She’s such a gossip, she’d be the last person I’d want to see me out on a date.”

    “It would be all over work in the morning.”

    Ah, if only it was true. He could withstand a little gossip if Susan were his girlfriend. Her hand still rested on his arm, burning through his thick flannel shirt to set his skin aflame. He shifted his position so that he was facing her. If she made any kind of welcoming move, he was going to kiss her.

    “I seriously doubt that she would have jumped to the conclusion that I was there because I was tailing her.”

    That stopped him. All she could think about was Patty. Maybe she wasn’t even attracted to him. He reached for the keys dangling in the ignition and turned them.

    “You’re probably right.” Somehow he kept the disappointment out of his voice. “Now, where exactly did you park your car?”


    Chapter 20


    Six a.m. came too soon, but Susan popped out of bed when her alarm went off. She pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt and hustled downstairs to get the trash can and recycle buckets out to the curb. Her breath formed white clouds in the cold morning air. The sun was coming up; in minutes, it would be full daylight. The thought made her grin. Nobody from work would dare try to steal her garbage with all her neighbors watching.

    Later that morning, Susan stood in the doorway to Ken’s cube, wondering if he knew she was the one who threw away his collection of Styrofoam food containers last week. He didn’t look very friendly. She’d done everyone a favor, because now there was no creepy rotten food smell over here, but she understood that he might not agree with her.

    Unfortunately, she had to talk to him because he was the only engineer who hadn’t returned her final draft. She needed him to okay the manual before she could send it to the printer. But he wasn’t cooperating.

    “I don’t have time for that.” He crossed his arms, refusing to take the manual Susan was holding out to him.

    His refusal rattled her. “But you’re the only one qualified to review chapter three.”

    He shrugged dramatically, rolling his eyes as if to tell her tough luck. A bolt of anger buzzed up her spine and she stepped into his cube, ready for battle. That’s when she noticed his eyes looked funny. They were bloodshot and the pupils were so dilated that only a thin rim of brown showed around the black. He looked high.

    Susan sniffed, trying to detect the distinctive smell of pot smoke. Nothing. But he was on something.

    He spun his chair to face his monitor and resumed typing. “I’m not even looking at it unless Tom tells me I have to.”

    She stood there for a few seconds fighting the urge to whack him over the head with the manual. Then she turned on her heel and headed for Tom’s cube. She wasn’t going to take the blame for holding up the project because Ken wouldn’t cooperate.

    The walk to Tom’s cube gave her a chance to calm down, so she could explain what was going on without having to shout or question Ken’s parentage. But all Tom did was shake his head and make excuses.

    “You’re sure it’s not his idea of an April Fool’s Day joke?”

    She shook her head. Ken hadn’t been fooling around.

    Tom sighed. “He’s is under a lot of pressure right now.”

    Susan crossed her arms and glared at him. He’d better come up with something more than that.

    Tom sighed and tossed a small candy wrapper onto his desk. “OK, let me start again. I agree with you that he did not act professionally, and I apologize for him.”

    She must have made a face, because Tom shrugged. “Unfortunately, he’s not going to apologize to you. Anyway, he has a lot of debugging on his plate. What I’d like to suggest is that I review the chapter for him.”

    Susan scrambled for a nice way to say Tom might not be qualified. “No one knows this information as well as he does.”

    Tom put his hand over his heart. “I promise if I have any questions, I’ll go to him.”

    In her heart, Susan had hoped that Tom would march down there and tell Ken to review her chapter now. She could picture Tom holding Ken by the ear and making him say he was sorry for being a jerk. Realistically, she knew that wasn’t going to happen. So she nodded.

    “Great!” He grabbed a bag of candy and held it out to her. “Want to seal our agreement with some chocolate?”

    From the number of little wrappers scattered across his desk, she guessed that he’d been working his way through the bag pretty diligently. Something about that was a turn off, and she shook her head.

    “Thanks anyway.” She handed him the chapter.

    “I’ll have it ready tomorrow,” he promised with his mouth full.

    Trying to work off some of her anger, Susan took the stairs down to the first floor. As she pushed the fire door open, she saw the pregnant secretary from HR trudge out of her office.

    “Hey, Barbara, were you looking for me?” she called.

    The woman turned slowly. She held a large stack of envelopes. “It’s payday? So I left your paycheck under your keyboard?”

    Susan grinned. “Thank you.”

    Within thirty seconds, she was tilted back in her chair, looking at her paycheck. Money was good. Money made even Ken bearable.

    Her calendar was clear, so Susan grabbed her purse and headed out for the bank to deposit her check. No one would notice if she split for a half hour.

    The new balance in her checking account and a wallet full of cash improved Susan’s attitude tremendously. When she finally made it back to work, she settled down and worked nonstop for hours. Eventually, she surfaced, realizing she needed a cup of coffee before tackling anything else.

    Anxious for a little exercise, she took the stairs. Just before she reached the landing for the second floor, she heard footsteps clattering down from the third floor. It sounded like a woman in heels. Maybe it was Alice. Or Melanie. She felt her spirits lift. It would be nice to see a friendly face.

    A short woman in a red power suit showing a lot of leg rounded the corner and stopped short. It was Patty. The cheerleader had morphed into the Fox network’s idea of a business woman.

    “It’s you.” Patty said the words flatly. Her hair and makeup were perfect, which somehow made her scowl uglier.

    Obviously, Patty wasn’t going to pretend that they hadn’t seen each other at the darts tournament last night. Susan noticed the beige wrist braces peeking out of her jacket sleeves and felt a surge of anger. The woman didn’t know when to quit.

    The skin on Susan’s back prickled, and she became physically aware of the empty space of the stairs behind her. If Patty pushed her, she’d have a long fall. She had one foot on the landing and one foot on the top step, so she felt pretty balanced. She tightened her grip on the handrail and leaned forward slightly, tensing her muscles and bracing herself.

    Susan pointed her chin toward Patty’s hands. “How are your wrists today?”

    Patty glanced at the door to the second floor and then met Susan’s eyes coldly. “Why don’t I think you’re really interested in how I feel?”

    Susan let her left hand flutter delicately to the middle of her chest, mimicking one of Patty’s signature gestures. “Maybe you don’t know me well enough. We should spend time together outside of work and get to know each other. You have any hobbies?”

    Patty’s face turned red. Susan knew it was stupid to bait her like this, especially since she was in such a vulnerable position. The pointy toes on those red pumps would hurt like the dickens if she kicked her. Susan’s right hand ached from the way she was holding onto the railing.

    Through gritted teeth, Patty said, “You can’t prove anything.”

    Susan shrugged. They both knew that it didn’t matter if she had proof. All she had to do was point the right people in the right direction, and they’d find all the proof they needed.

    “How did Rebecca find out what you were doing?”

    Patty frowned. “Rebecca? What does she have to do with this?”

    Susan raised her eyebrows.

    “You’re crazy if you think I sold her drugs.”

    “No, I think you pushed her down the stairs to keep her quiet.”

    The blonde took a step back, and the color drained out of her face. She opened her mouth, but no words came out. She just stared at Susan with wide eyes. Susan stared right back at her. Either Patty was shocked at the idea she might have had anything to do with Rebecca’s death, or she was horrified that Susan had put two and two together. There was no way to tell which was the right interpretation.

    Susan felt trapped at the top of the stairs. If she took another step toward Patty, or if she turned around to walk down the stairs, Patty could panic and try to push her. Her best option might be to walk backwards down the stairs slowly, keeping an eye on her.

    With a squeak, the fire door to the second floor swung open. Mark strode onto the landing only to stop abruptly and smile when he saw them.

    “Here you are!” He rubbed his hands briskly together. “Susan, I need to ask you a favor.”

    He was completely oblivious to the fact that he’d walked into a minefield, and his cheerful manner somehow managed to defuse the situation. Patty immediately started smiling deferentially up at Mark, and Susan loosened her grip on the handrail and stepped up onto the landing. She only half listened as he droned on about needing someone to reformat some files right away. She couldn’t help him.

    She heard a familiar ripping sound and flinched. Patty was playing with the bindings on her wrist braces again. It was bad enough she was faking an injury, but her constant tugging at the Velcro was getting on Susan’s nerves.

    As soon as Mark paused, she cut in. “I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can do it. I’m tied up all day.”

    His shoulders slumped as he nodded slowly, but Susan refused to feel guilty. She had done a lot of extra work for him already.

    “I can help you.” Patty tucked the braces under her arm and flexed her bare wrists. “I’m actually feeling a lot better today.”

    Mark’s eyes widened, and Susan realized her own jaw was hanging open. Patty was volunteering? Hell must have frozen over. Or else… Susan stared at Patty, trying to catch her eye. But Patty kept her gaze on Mark. This could mean that Patty was going to stop pretending to have carpal tunnel syndrome.

    “You’re sure?”

    “Yes, I’m sure.” She said it bravely, and Susan resisted the urge to roll her eyes in disgust. If this was Patty’s last curtain call, she could milk it for all it was worth.

    As Susan excused herself and slipped through the door, she heard Mark ask, “What’s with the suit? You’re not interviewing somewhere today, are you?”

    The thrill of forcing Patty to get rid of the wrist braces faded as Susan realized that she still didn’t know if Rebecca had been blackmailing her. Patty had folded so quickly, though. Could she have withstood any pressure from Rebecca? It didn’t seem likely.


    Chapter 21


    Hugh stopped by the security door to the computer room. “This is it.”

    As he punched in the code to unlock the door, Susan wondered why they needed to go in here. This was the cold room where the mainframe and file servers were. This was Dave’s domain, and it was usually off limits to engineering. He opened the door and gestured for her to enter. As she stepped in, the cooler air washed over her, immediately giving her goosebumps.

    Melanie and Martha were standing together at the far end of the room. Martha waved. Susan looked at Hugh, and he pointed to them. “We wanted to talk to you.”

    A shiver ran through Susan. What could they possibly want? Did they know she’d been snooping around Rebecca’s death? Maybe they wanted to stop her.

    As she followed Hugh across the room, she slipped her left hand into her jeans pocket and got a good grip around the small pepper spray canister Steph had given her. If things got ugly, she’d be ready.

    Hugh spoke first. “We have a killer app, and we want to break away from ESS and start our own company.”

    Susan stared at him. What did a killer app, which was slang for an excellent software program, have to do with Rebecca?

    Melanie flashed her beauty pageant smile. “We want you to join us.”

    The sound of Martha’s teeth chattering seemed magnified in Susan’s ears. They weren’t interested in her investigation of Rebecca’s death. They were offering her a job. They were also waiting for her to respond.

    “What kind of app?”

    “We’ll show you.” The pride and confidence in his voice made Susan sure Hugh had developed the app himself. There might be problems with the nondisclosure agreement, but she pushed the thought aside. That was for the lawyers to work out.

    “What about capital? We’d have to find backers.”

    Melanie’s smile widened, and Susan realized she had used the word “we.” She must be at least halfway to saying yes if she was thinking in terms of we. She forced the smile off her face. She also let go of the pepper spray and pulled her hand out of her pocket.

    Martha waved a hand delicately at Hugh. “You tell her.”

    “Martha and I worked at Microsoft.”

    The hair on Susan’s arms stood up. This could only mean one thing.

    “How long?” Her voice sounded strangled.

    Hugh tapped himself on the chest. “Eleven years.”

    Susan’s jaw dropped. Eleven years of an engineer’s stock options might be a fortune by now.

    Martha peered at Susan. “I can see all your fillings when you do that.”

    Susan snapped her mouth shut.

    “And I was there for ten years.”

    “Which means?”

    “Which means that we’re both millionaires.”

    Martha corrected him. “On paper.”

    Susan broke out in a light sweat. This must be a killer app if they were willing to put up their own money to finance the startup. “Who else has signed on?”

    Melanie started ticking folks off on her fingers. “Mark Eastman, but he declined the management position. Sheryl and Hector from marketing--”

    Hugh interrupted. “And some engineers I’ve worked with at other companies, all great guys, very smart.”

    Melanie took back over. “And Dave. We tagged him to run IT, and he’s already come up with some great plans for the internal net.”

    “Dave’s in?”

    They nodded in unison. Martha had a big grin and was staring at the top of Susan’s head again.

    “He isn’t here because he didn’t want your,” Hugh looked away, “friendship to color your decision.”

    There was an uncomfortable silence. Hugh seemed to notice for the first time that Martha was freezing to death right in front of him, because he shrugged off his leather jacket and draped it over her shoulders. Almost immediately the color returned to her lips.

    “Is there anything else?”

    “I want a smoking room inside the building.” Melanie stubbed out her cigarette. “The founders of the company should not have to stand outside in the rain to get a few hits of nicotine.”

    That made sense. But Susan had to test how far they’d thought it through. “That would mean expensive air scrubbers and probably a hefty surcharge from the insurance company.” She said it lightly, without any condemnation in her tone. Hell, if they wanted to pollute their own lungs, who was she to stop them?

    Hugh glanced at Melanie. “I’ve already talked a friend in facilities at a company where they have a smoke room. I’ve got the specs on the equipment and the lowdown on the extra insurance.” He shrugged. “It’s high, but doable.”

    Susan watched them watch her. They were quite a team already. She trusted them. There were people here she didn’t trust, though.

    “What about Patty? Are you making this offer to her, too?”

    Susan wouldn’t sign on if Patty was going to be there. They probably didn’t know about the fraudulent workman’s comp claims, and she wasn’t about to tell them, but if they couldn’t see that Patty was bad news--

    “Brown sparks.” Martha said this as if it meant something really bad. She was shaking her head sadly.

    Susan looked at Melanie for a help, but she just shrugged. “We’re being extremely selective, based on some pretty esoteric criteria, and she didn’t make the cut.”

    “She didn’t come close,” Hugh added.

    “It was the brown sparks.”

    Susan was sitting in the library proofreading what she hoped was her final version of the installation instructions. It was hard to focus because of the delicious smells coming from the coffee room. About twenty minutes ago, Martha had brought in bags of Chinese takeout for everyone working late. Susan’s stomach growled, but she wasn’t going to eat until she finished proofreading.

    “Goddamn it!” The shout was followed by a loud metallic clattering and some wet thumps. “Why isn’t there any meat in this place?”

    Susan rolled her chair backwards until she had a clear view down the hall into the coffee room. Ken was in the middle of the room waving his arms around. His face was red. Tom stood about four feet from him.

    “Who the hell is ordering this food?” Ken was screaming now. He threw a white carton across the room and it splattered brown against the wall. “If we get N number of dishes of food, then N minus one are vegetarian.”

    Susan shook her head. Only an engineer would use algebra during a temper tantrum.

    Ken stomped his feet in a puddle of brown sauce. “It doesn’t make sense. There aren’t that many fucking vegetarians in this company.”

    Tom said something to Ken, who shook his head vigorously. A few of the test engineers had gathered in the hallway to watch the show.

    Ken cupped his hands around his mouth as if to make a bullhorn and yelled out the doorway, “We’re down one vegetarian, you know. She’s dead! She’s not coming to dinner. You can stop ordering tofu for her.”

    Susan realized with a sickening jolt that he must be talking about Rebecca.

    Tom stepped closer to Ken and put a hand on his shoulder. Ken twisted away and swung a fist in Tom’s direction. He missed, but it made Tom jump back and keep his distance.

    The engineers in the hall suddenly scattered as Philip came jogging barefoot up to the doorway. He blocked Susan’s view into the coffee room. He was talking to Ken, but Susan couldn’t hear the words.

    The elevator doors opened. Martha stuck her head out, looked both ways down the hall, and stepped out timidly. She took a few steps toward the coffee room and called out Philip’s name softly. She gripped her long black braid with both hands and tugged at it. Philip glanced at her and waved for her to get away.

    She just stood there in the middle of the hall swaying slightly in her colorful gauze skirt and Grateful Dead t-shirt as if her Birkenstocks were glued to the floor. She was the one who had been ordering and picking up the food all week. She was the one Ken was screaming at, if you assumed he was actually thinking about what he was screaming. It would be better if Ken didn’t see her right now.

    Susan jumped out of the chair and hurried to Martha. She grabbed her limp arm and walked her back to the elevator.

    “Let’s go downstairs. Philip and Tom have this under control. There’s nothing we can do up here.”

    As they stepped into the elevator, they heard a low wailing sound coming from the coffee room. Martha clamped her hands over her ears, and Susan pushed the button for the first floor. The long hours were starting to take their toll, but she’d never seen anyone snap like that.

    Susan and Alice were standing outside the coffee room looking at a takeout menu from the pizza place around the corner. Everyone else had gone back to their desks, but the email was probably flying. Susan still couldn’t believe the things Ken had shouted about dead vegetarians. A lot of people had been upset about Rebecca’s death, and Ken was an idiot to bring it all to the surface again.

    The elevator pinged, and Susan watched Tom trot heavily out. He waved offhandedly to Susan and Alice before going into the coffee room, picking his way carefully around the brown sticky patches on the floor.

    Alice leaned over and dropped her voice to a whisper. “I bet Philip sent him up here to assess the damage.” She crossed her arms. “He’d better be careful who he asks to clean up that mess.”

    “He wouldn’t.”

    Alice shrugged. “We’ll see. Just keep in mind, you’re a senior writer and I’m a manager.” She waved the menu. “And we’re busy.”

    Susan grinned. Alice had definite ideas about what it took to maintain her dignity as a woman in management.

    The odor of cold, greasy Chinese food had permeated the hallway. If someone didn’t clean up the mess tonight, the whole second floor would stink tomorrow. Susan had gotten a good look at the coffee room, so she knew what Tom was seeing under those harsh florescent lights. The south wall was covered with a brown splash mark that radiated out at least six feet. Based on the chunks of tofu and peanuts stuck to the wall, that must have been the Vegetarian Kung Pao. Most of the sauce had dripped down and pooled on the floor.

    The rest of the mess was concentrated by the table where Ken had knocked several cartons onto the floor. Footprints tracked through the rice and sauces, spreading them all around the room.

    In Susan’s opinion, they ought to make Ken clean it up. Then they should fire him. Or at least make him go to anger management class.

    She wondered where he was, and what Philip had said to him. Somehow, she hadn’t ever thought of Philip as a guy who’d be good in a crisis. His forte seemed to be in whipping up turmoil, not calming it down.

    Susan walked to the door. “Hey, Tom, how’s Ken?”

    Tom turned toward her, chewing rapidly. He had half an egg roll in his hand, and Susan’s stomach turned. She could have sworn that Ken dumped all the egg rolls on the floor. Alice appeared at her elbow, and Susan exchanged a worried look with her. She hoped Tom wasn’t eating food off the floor.

    Tom swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Ken’s okay.” He shrugged. “You never know how people are going to handle the pressure, you know? He’d been working around the clock for too long.”

    Susan resisted the urge to nod in an understanding manner. Everyone had been putting in a lot of hours, and only Ken had flipped out.

    He popped the rest of the egg roll into his mouth and spread his arms to indicate the mess. “Hey, would you two--”

    “Don’t even think about it.” Alice’s face was set in a frown.

    Tom looked at Susan for help, but she shook her head. Alice was right. It would set the wrong kind of precedent. She was a communications professional, not a maid. But her best friend was. Susan smiled. This was the perfect way to finally get Steph in here to see some of the people involved in Rebecca’s death.

    Tom wiped his hand on his pants, leaving a grease mark on the tan fabric. He must have thought Susan was weakening, because he took another shot. “I’d never ask under normal circumstances, but some bigwigs are coming in tomorrow--”

    She held up a hand. “I could call the woman who cleans my house. She’s licensed and bonded. I’m sure she’d come right in.”

    He grinned and gave her a thumbs up. “How fast can she get here?”

    Alice nodded approvingly at him and held the takeout menu. “Hey, Tom, you must be hungry. We’re ordering pizza. You want to join us?”

    Steph thought her head would fall off her neck if she had to keep nodding much longer. This Tom guy was blabbering on and on about what he wanted done. She could cut him off and tell him exactly what she would do, throwing around terms like low-abrasive scrubbing and non-sudsing ammonia to dazzle and confuse him. But he looked like a heart attack waiting to happen. His face was red and a vein bulged in his neck. If she interrupted him, he might just keel over.

    Steph had already sized up the situation. Chinese food was spread out on the floor, a wall, and a table. The other table was heaped with newspapers. The sink was slightly grungy and full of dirty coffee cups, despite a sign that read, “Your mother doesn’t work here.” The inside of the microwave was anyone’s guess. All in all, she’d seen worse. In two hours she’d have the room sparkling and smelling good, and she’d be on her way home with a pocket full of cash. Thank you, Susan!

    Tom finally left, shutting the door behind him. Steph stood for a moment in the middle of the room. The humming of the fridge was the only thing she could hear. From the number of cars she’d seen in the parking lot, there were still people working, but she hadn’t seen anyone as Tom had led her from the front door to this break room.

    Steph pulled her plastic dustpan from her supply cart and started shoveling the food into the trash can. The paper cartons and disposable forks and plates followed next. There was probably more than hundred bucks of Chinese food spread around this break room. That was an awful big waste of money for a temper tantrum, even for a company with a million in the bank.

    The building didn’t feel new, but the room had been painted recently with high quality acrylic paint. The sticky brown sauce rinsed off the wall easily. As she patted the wall dry, she wondered about the night Rebecca died. Had there been a lot of blood? Probably not, if she’d just broken her neck. Blood was hard to clean up. You had to know what you were doing.

    She filled her bucket with hot soapy water for the floor. No matter what mop manufacturers claimed, Steph found the best way to clean a linoleum floor was to get down on her knees and scrub it by hand. After a few minutes of scrubbing, a faint blue and tan confetti pattern emerged from the grime. Either these people were complete slobs, or this floor had not been washed in months. If she pointed this out to Tom, he might think she was trying to take over the cleaning contract for the building. She wiped the sweat from her forehead. There was no way she wanted to be in this place after hours on a regular basis.

    “Hello, hello?”

    Steph looked up. A short woman peered into the room from behind the door. Her blonde ponytail dangled beside her face. She had a big smile and wide eyes, but there was a hardness in her face that made the smile seem fake.

    This had to be Patty. Goosebumps broke out on Steph’s arms. Susan thought this woman was a killer.

    “Can I help you?” Steph’s voice was flat. She hoped Patty would take offense and go away.

    But she came in anyway. “Oh, you speak English!” She clapped her hands together. “It’s so nice to be able to communicate with a member of the cleaning staff.”

    Steph just looked at her for a few seconds without smiling. Maybe if she ignored her, Patty would just go away. Steph dunked her rag into the bucket of hot soapy water and resumed scrubbing the floor. It was completely rude, and Nana was probably rolling over in her grave right now over such bad manners, but Steph merely leaned harder into each stroke of the rag on the linoleum.

    “My goodness, must have been quite a scene in here.”

    Steph ignored her. As the minutes ticked by, she could feel Patty’s gaze boring into her, but she didn’t look up. She listened intently though, making sure Patty didn’t take a step toward her. The woman gave her the creeps, but she couldn’t say why. Steph scooted back a few feet to start cleaning another block of the floor. The plastic coating on her hockey knee pads made it easy to slide across the wet floor.

    Patty smiled. “What kind of house does Susan have?”

    So she knew who she was. The whole thing about being a member of the cleaning staff had been a ruse. Ignoring her hadn’t worked. Time for more direct tactics. Steph dropped the wet rag into her bucket and stood up.

    “Why do you ask? Are you looking for someone to clean your house? What kind of house do you have?” Steph didn’t give her a chance to answer the questions as she strode toward Patty. Most people don’t like being crowded, and short people hate being towered over.

    “How many bathrooms do you have? Do you live alone?”

    Patty’s smug expression was replaced with a look of alarm as Steph closed in.

    “Would you like my office number? You can call in, and we’ll start the credit check. That’s my first step before accepting a new client.”

    Steph was about three feet away from her when Patty took a step back and held up both hands. “My goodness, look at the time! Got to go.” She backed toward the door and pulled it open. “If I need a cleaning lady, I’ll ask Susan for your number.”

    The door shut behind her, and Steph shook her head. Susan thought a person that wimpy could be a killer? It didn’t add up. Steph scooped up all the newspapers from the second table and crunched them into a ball. Her heart was pounding the way it did just before a race. She must have been crazy to chase that woman out of the room. But she couldn’t stand another minute of her sitting there, watching her. Patty wasn’t physically imposing, but she was intense.

    Steph knelt down and fished her rag out of the bucket. Pushing the soapy rag across a sticky spot made her think of a hand shooting out and connecting with the middle of someone’s back, sending that person flying. It didn’t take guts or strength to push a person down the stairs. That was just the sort of crime a woman like Patty was capable of. Steph felt a chill run down her spine and shifted her position so her back was not toward the door.

    Susan answered her phone on the first ring, hoping it was Steph calling from the coffee room.

    “Hey, it’s me.”

    She recognized Andy’s voice, although he sounded uncharacteristically agitated. “Hi, Andy. Is something wrong?”

    “I just heard about Ken flipping out.”

    “Oh.” Susan leaned back in her chair, smiling. She would bet money that’s all anyone was talking about.

    “Listen, Susan, you remember that box? The one you, um, borrowed from under Ken’s desk?”

    Susan stiffened. “Yes?” She said the word cautiously, not really wanting to know what Andy wanted. It was locked safely in the trunk of her car, and she wasn’t letting anyone near it.

    “I think we’d better put it back.”

    She bit her lip. It was the only piece of solid evidence she had for Ken’s shoplifting scheme. She couldn’t just give it back to him. She would need it if she had to go to the police. But Andy sounded so upset. She had to convince him that it wasn’t important.

    “Andy, you don’t think our taking the box had anything to do with him flipping out, do you?”

    “I don’t know.” But it was clear from his voice that he did think so.

    “Look, we did everyone in that area a favor by throwing out all those disgusting Styrofoam containers.”

    Andy grunted acknowledgement, and Susan pressed her point. “Ken might have been mad about that, but I’m sure he never even noticed the cardboard box was gone, too.” She let her head fall back against the back of the chair, and she looked up at the jittery florescent light above her. “The long hours are what got to Ken.”

    “Hmmm.” Andy didn’t sound convinced.

    “That’s what Tom told me. I guess Philip pushed him a little too hard to debug his part of the project.”

    “Phil can be pretty tough.”

    Susan smiled. Andy was buying it. She resisted saying anything else, letting him think about all the times the VP had reduced competent, stable engineers to blathering idiots.

    After a few seconds, he sighed heavily into the phone. “You’re probably right.”

    “It’s not our fault, Andy.”

    “You do still have the box, don’t you?”

    She let the chair thump into an upright position, surprised by the question. “Oh my, sure I do. I’m using it.” She scanned the office, trying to think up some use for the box. “I’m keeping my diskettes in it.”

    “Really? You know, you want any office supplies, you just ask Martha--”

    “Hey, Andy, I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.”

    She dropped the receiver back onto the phone and stared at it. She didn’t want to tell anyone else about Ken’s shoplifting scheme until she talked to somebody in HR.

    Maybe Andy would forget all about the box. She rapped her knuckles on the battered brown surface of her desk, hoping that laminate woodgrain was as lucky as real wood.

    When Steph finished cleaning, Tom came and paid her in cash. She gave him a receipt, packed up her equipment, and left without saying goodbye to Susan. She didn’t want to take the chance that Susan would realize what she was planning--and try to stop her.

    This whole investigation thing had gone on too long. Susan was enjoying herself, uncovering dirt on everybody she worked with. But it was time to start crossing suspects off the list. Steph figured Patty would be easiest. She would go to that bar in Bellevue and find out once and for all if Patty had been there all night, or if she’d slipped out in time to push Rebecca down the stairs.

    Steph stopped in the ladies room before she left the building. She washed her face and hands, but she couldn’t do anything about the greasy stains on her clothes. Oh well, she thought as she fluffed up her hair, from Susan’s description of the place, she’d fit right in.


    Chapter 22


    Patty couldn’t have killed Rebecca; she’d been throwing darts at Sloane’s Tavern until closing that night. Steph had telephoned Susan early this morning to report what she’d learned from the bartender and a drunk who said he’d lost money betting against “the little blonde.”

    Once Susan had dealt with her initial jab of annoyance at being left out of the field trip, the news had made her a little sick. She could have handled Patty--she wasn’t sure she could handle Ken. Her hand slid across the comforting outline of the pepper spray canister in her front pocket. It might not even be Ken. It could be anyone. Whoever it was probably knew that Susan was snooping around.

    The bell chimed, and Susan stepped off the elevator on the second floor. Tinkling laughter brought her bad mood to a new low. Patty sat cross-legged on top of the library conference table, holding court with two guys Susan hadn’t been introduced to yet. The dark-haired one had a sickening puppy-love kind of look on his face. Susan ground her teeth together. It amazed her that no one else could tell what kind of person Patty Andrews really was.

    “I never thought acupuncture would work, but my wrists feel fantastic.”

    Susan quietly walked up behind Patty. Of course the woman couldn’t just drop the whole carpal tunnel charade. She had to make a fuss over her miraculous recovery, too.

    “I didn’t know you were even trying acupuncture.” The dark-haired engineer said it as if she’d done something very brave.

    Patty shrugged. “I felt a little funny, trying something so far out of the mainstream, so I kept it to myself.” She twisted her wrists delicately in the air in front of her. “Of course, since it worked, I want to tell everyone.”

    Susan was a step away from her. Both guys looked at her over Patty’s shoulder, prompting Patty to twist around to see who was behind her.

    “Acupuncture?” Susan kept her voice low and pleasant. “That’s always reminded me of darts.”

    Patty’s smile disappeared. The temperature in the library seemed to drop a few degrees.

    The dark-haired engineer nudged his friend. “We’d better get back to work.”

    When the men were out of earshot, Patty slid off the table and faced Susan. Her eyes were cool, but she didn’t look angry. It wasn’t smart to bait the woman like this, even if she wasn’t a killer. They did have to work together, after all.

    “That was a good one.”

    “Thanks,” Susan said cautiously, not sure how to take the compliment.

    Patty tilted her head and smiled sweetly. “Of course, it’s not that hard to come up with a good shot like that when you have something on a person.”


    “For instance, maybe your fiancé would be interested to hear what you were doing Tuesday night.”

    She paused for emphasis, presumably to let her threat sink in, but Susan was confused. What fiancé? Then she remembered lying to Patty about being engaged to one of her male roommates.

    “Does he think you were working late? I’m sure he doesn’t know you were sitting in Dave Bennett’s lap while you had a couple of drinks at Sloane’s.”

    Wow, this woman went straight for the jugular. Thank God they hadn’t become close! If Susan had dropped even one hint about the whole Jack fiasco... she swallowed hard at the thought. It was best to let Patty think she’d scored with the imaginary fiancé so she wouldn’t dig for something else to hold over Susan’s head.

    She cleared her throat. “You have a point there.”

    Patty pressed her hand to her heart. “Then why don’t we call a truce? You keep my secret, and I’ll keep yours.”

    Susan shook her head. “Only if you stay cured. If you start whining about your wrists again, I’m going straight to HR and the state labor board, no matter how you threaten me.”

    “I’m cured, all right.” Patty flexed her wrists and shrugged. “I figure if someone like you could catch me, I didn’t have a chance of pulling it off anyway.”

    Erin Carney used the phone in her bedroom to make sure none of the kids could overhear her conversation. She sat on the edge of her bed, tangling her fingers in the cord nervously as she waited for the parish rectory housekeeper to put Father Tim on the phone.

    There was a clattering noise, and then, “Hello, Father Tim speaking.”

    “Father, this is Erin Carney.”

    “Good afternoon, Erin. What can I do for you?”

    “It’s my son, Brian. He’s quit his job in Seattle and come home last week without any explanation. He won’t talk to us, but something’s tearing him up, Father.” She drew in a shaky breath, trying to keep her voice level. “I was hoping you could try talking to him.”

    After a few seconds of silence, the priest’s voice came across the line reassuring her with its gentle, cheery tone. “Of course, since Brian’s in town then maybe you could have me over to dinner tonight? That would give me a chance to catch up with him.”

    All the air she’d been holding in seemed to rush out. “Thank you, Father.” Now there was hope. As she hung up the phone, she checked the clock. She had time to run down to the market and pick up fresh tortillas. Father Tim always loved her spicy chicken fajitas better than any of the stuffy, formal dinners other parishioners forced on him.

    Brian had just finished waxing and buffing the Acura when he heard the screen door squeak open. Mom leaned out the back door, wiping her hands on a green dish towel. “Come wash up, Bri. It’s almost time for supper.”

    “Okay, Mom.” His stomach had been growling for the last half hour. He turned to the garage to put away the buffing rags and car wax.

    “And put on a clean shirt, honey. Father Tim’s coming to supper.”

    He spun toward her, but the screen door had already banged shut. Father Tim! Brian slumped back against the newly polished car. She couldn’t stand not knowing why he’d come home. She was ruthless. He tossed the rag onto the hood of the car. He should have wondered why she was wearing a dress under her apron.

    Brian stood on the front porch watching Patrick and Sara shooting baskets. Sara had gained two inches on her twin over the winter. When Father Tim pulled into the driveway in his old black sedan, Sara ran to the car and dragged him to the court to watch Patrick sink one from the foul line. Father high-fived Patrick, and Brian heard across the years Father Tim’s voice in his own ear telling him to keep practicing. The priest’s hair was white, and he seemed shorter than he had years ago when he was coaching the parish basketball team, but he still had that irrepressible energy that made you wonder if he was really a priest.

    Father Tim was ruffling Sara’s hair when he looked across the yard, met Brian’s gaze and smiled. It was a smile that welcomed back a good friend after a long absence, and a smile that also said, “I remember when you were only this tall.”

    Brian returned the smile. This man had heard Brian’s boyhood confessions every Saturday, had coached his basketball team, had helped him prepare for confirmation, and had counseled him on his decision to move to the west side of the mountains. This was Father Tim, after all, not some stranger who would wear him down and tear his heart out for what he’d done.

    Brian pushed the rice and beans around his plate to make it look like he was eating. Everything he’d eaten sat like a cold lump in his stomach, and he didn’t think he could force anything else down.

    Dad was droning on about the hospital’s plans for expansion, and Patrick and Sara were trying to gross each other out by showing off mouthfuls of chewed-up food, painted green with guacamole, without being noticed by Mom. Brian’s head pounded. There would be no family dinners if he ended up in prison.

    He put down his fork. No more pretending. He’d come home not to hide, but because this was the one place he couldn’t hide. He’d been incredibly stupid and cruel, and it was time to face the music.

    Just after dusk, the sky was pink and houses glowed with light spilling out through windows facing the street. Brian and Father Tim walked slowly along the sidewalk. They’d passed out of earshot of his parents’ house already, but Brian couldn’t figure out how to start. There had to be something besides the standard “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”

    Father Tim had taken off his black jacket before they left the house. His white clerical collar and his close-cropped white hair both gleamed in the deepening dusk. In a few more minutes, it would be dark enough to tell his story without having to see the look on Father Tim’s face.

    “Your mother is worried about you.”

    She might be worried now, but she’d be heartbroken when the truth came out. Brian shortened his stride to avoid a crack in the sidewalk. He pulled his hands out of his pockets.

    “It’s this girl I worked with, Rebecca Cafferty.” His voice sounded loud in his ears, and he glanced around to see if any neighbors were out. The front yards were empty and obscured by deep shadows.

    “Is she pregnant?”

    Brian laughed suddenly, harshly. So that’s what his mother was worried about. “No, Father, she’d not pregnant. She’s dead.”

    Father Tim didn’t seem to react. He just kept walking along, hands clasped behind his back, looking at a point on the sidewalk ahead of them. Maybe he hadn’t understood him.

    “She’s dead, and I’m partly to blame for it.”


    Chapter 23


    The alarm clock buzzed, and Susan was instantly wide awake. She had exactly forty five minutes before Dave came to pick her up for the drive to Yakima. The trip would be a waste of time. She couldn’t imagine what Brian would have to tell them. Dave just didn’t get it that Ken had to be the killer.

    Her eyes focused on the pink frosted glass light fixture centered over her bed. Cobwebs stretched from it to the wall, mocking her housekeeping efforts.

    Susan got up, pulling the sheets and blankets to the floor, making herself look away from the cobwebs. There was no time to knock them down this morning. She would just have to put them out of her mind, especially since she had to put clean sheets on the bed.

    She grabbed her robe and towel and headed to the bathroom for a shower. If Dave did end up spending the night, he wouldn’t notice any cobwebs.

    Just before 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, Steph arrived at Susan’s house to edge the lawn and weed the flower beds for Roger. He was paying her ten dollars an hour for the yard work. Steph grinned. It was nice knowing lazy people who had lots of extra cash. Roger said he’d leave the key to the garage, where all the tools were, on the kitchen table. So Steph leaned her bike against the house and started climbing the stairs up to the deck outside the kitchen.

    The back door was locked, so she reached up and slid her fingers across the gritty top of the lamp beside the kitchen door. She found the key, then rubbed her hand vigorously on her jeans. The gritty stuff was probably dirt and rust, not dead bugs. Certainly not bug eggs. She shuddered. There’d better be a pair of gardening gloves in the garage.

    She unlocked the door and slid the key back into its hiding place, careful not to touch the lamp. Roger had explained the key had always been hidden there for the convenience of countless roommates and their friends. There was no way to know how many people knew this secret. With everything going on at Susan’s new job, maybe keeping the key there wasn’t such a good idea anymore. She’d have to talk to Susan about it.

    She tiptoed into the kitchen. No one would be up this early on a Saturday. Roger’s keys were on the table as promised. Sneaking in like this just proved her point about the house not being very secure. She could be a cat burglar or the psycho killer from Susan’s work.

    Just as Steph grabbed the keys, a floorboard behind her creaked loudly. Steph yelped and spun around, landing with her legs apart and knees bent in a fighter’s stance. Both fists were up, and one hand brandished Roger’s keys like a weapon.

    “Good morning.” Susan stood in the doorway with a big grin on her face.

    Steph’s ears rang with the echo of her loud, frightened yelp. To hide her embarrassment at being startled so easily, she took the offensive.

    “You scared the daylights out of me! What the hell are you doing up this early?”

    “I’m sorry I scared you.” She didn’t look the least bit sorry. “What are you doing here? I’m starting to think you don’t have a home of your own.”

    Steph tossed the keys onto the table. “Roger’s paying me to do the yard work for him. I used the extra house key to let myself in. You know, anyone could get in here if they wanted to.”

    Susan’s expression became more serious. “I never thought of that.”

    Steph pulled out a chair and sat down. She could afford to spend a few minutes shooting the breeze before getting to work. Susan slung a light jacket and her purse over the back of a chair. She was wearing jeans and a pretty yellow blouse that actually looked as though it had been ironed. Susan never dressed that well to go to work, especially on a Saturday.

    Steph realized that her friend had never answered her question about what she was doing up so early. A hint of exasperation crept into her voice as she asked, “Where are you going?”

    Susan bit her lip, which meant she was deciding whether to answer the question, ignore it, or lie. Steph crossed her arms. Susan ought to know better than try to lie to her.

    “You’re getting old if it takes you this long to make up a good story.”

    Susan laughed. “I wouldn’t lie to you. I was just trying to figure out the best way to tell you.”

    Steph just raised her eyebrows.

    “Okay, here’s the deal. I’m going on a road trip with Dave--”

    Steph’s jaw dropped. For all they knew, Dave was the one who killed Rebecca.

    “We’re driving to Yakima to drop in on Brian Carney, one of the engineers who worked with Rebecca. Brian quit right after her death, and Dave thinks he might know something about what happened to her.”

    Steph pounced. “You were just going to sneak away this morning, climb into his Volkswagon bug, and go on a road trip without telling anyone?”

    Susan looked confused. “Dave drives a truck.”

    “Oh, that’s right, Ted Bundy’s the one with the Volkswagon.”

    “Dave is not Ted Bundy.” Susan said this through gritted teeth.

    “Nobody thought Ted Bundy was Ted Bundy, either. Until it was too late. And they were dead!”

    The way Susan flinched made Steph realize she’d practically shouted at her.

    “What the hell is going on in there?” An irritated, sleepy shout came down the hallway. “Some people are trying to sleep in this house.” Roger shuffled into the kitchen in a white t-shirt and baggy pajama bottoms printed with ducks. Steph had to look away to keep from laughing.

    “Sorry, Roger.” Susan sounded completely serious and apologetic. She was looking right at him, too. The ducks didn’t faze her at all. Maybe she’d seen them already. Maybe she saw them all the time.

    Roger grunted some kind of noncommittal male response, and Susan jumped back in, talking to him as if he were fully clothed. “Steph is freaking out because I’m going to Yakima with Dave Bennett. She doesn’t think I should trust him.”

    Steph risked a look at Roger. He had his arms crossed and was nodding thoughtfully as if they were all in some board meeting.

    “Are you sure this guy’s okay, Roger?”

    “He’s a nice guy, salt of the earth. Nothing to worry about.”

    Susan was making a “now are you satisfied?” face at Steph, as if the duck man’s opinion actually carried any weight.

    Two quick beeps of a horn filtered in through the open window. Steph threw her hands up. “He’s not even coming in? What kind of person beeps for you like that?”

    Susan grabbed her jacket and purse and headed for the door. “Goodbye, Mom.” The door swung shut behind her.

    Steph crossed her arms. Susan needed a mother if she was going to be reckless. She might be skipping off into disaster. She just wasn’t taking the situation seriously enough.

    Roger yawned, and Steph pinned him with her eyes. He’d better know what he was doing, sending her off with some stranger to play detective.

    “So where did you meet this Dave guy, anyway?”

    Roger frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to be working on the lawn?”

    She popped out of her seat, angry that he would ignore her question. But he was already shuffling down the hall with his flock of ducks. It was probably best not to antagonize him until he paid her for the yard work anyway.

    If he didn’t want to tell her how he’d met Dave, she’d find out on her own. Steph had done a great job at that tavern posing as a reporter. Susan wasn’t the only one who could play detective around here.

    Susan rounded the corner and saw Dave leaning against the side of his shiny black truck. He was wearing jeans, scuffed, tan work boots, and a blue and green flannel shirt buttoned halfway up over a matching blue t-shirt. He looked like a model in a lumberjack calendar.

    He watched her approach, making her glad she’d bothered to iron her shirt. His eyes squinted into the unexpected sun that was behind her, but he was smiling.

    He opened the door for her. “Good morning.”

    Drops of water splashed from the lower edge of the door onto the sidewalk. He must have just washed the truck.

    She climbed into the cab of the truck and he closed the door. The smell of hot coffee enveloped her. There were two large Starbucks paper cups in the cup holders.

    Susan buckled herself in, and Dave slid behind the wheel.

    “You got me a latte?”

    He nodded. “Tall, nonfat, no foam.”

    She grinned. That was what she had asked for at Java Jungle, and he’d remembered. A jolt of pleasure zipped through her, waking her up faster than the coffee would.

    “Thank you so much.”

    She shifted in her seat, trying not to think about the silky pink panties and matching bra she had on. But the underwire cut into her if she slumped. She straightened, smiling, thinking about how quickly she’d tossed aside her everyday white cotton undies that morning.

    She leaned back against the headrest and watched Dave out of the corner of her eye. He was so darned big and muscular that she felt kind of dainty and feminine around him. She was only 5′8″ but with most guys she felt like a giant.

    He glanced at her, as if he’d felt her looking at him. “I know what you’re thinking.”

    Her throat closed, and she squeaked, “Really?”

    “You think this is a huge waste of time, driving out to see Brian, because you’re convinced that Ken killed Rebecca.”

    “Oh,” Susan fumbled for words. “Yes. I guess that’s true.”

    He shook his head. “I just don’t see it.”

    Susan could see it, though. But Dave was still talking.

    “…and it can’t be a coincidence that he walked away from everything so soon after she died. There had to be something between them.”

    “Patty said she’d heard a rumor.” She paused. It was ugly, and she didn’t want to hurt him with it. “That Brian got Rebecca pregnant and talked her out of an abortion because he’s Catholic. And that Rebecca took the only way out she could think of.”

    A muscle jumped along the side of his jaw, but he didn’t say anything.

    Susan tried to take back what she’d said. “But Patty said she didn’t believe it because there was no sign that they were dating. And you told me new people in AA are told not to get into a relationship until they have a whole year of sobriety.”

    He shook his head. “Maybe that’s what I don’t know about it. Rebecca might have kept it a secret because she--”

    He clamped his mouth shut.

    “What?” Susan’s stomach twisted. She was afraid he was finally going to admit that there had been some gigantic unsaid love thing between the two of them.

    He exhaled loudly, almost like a groan. “I think she might have been afraid to disappoint me. I put a lot of pressure on her to work a good program.”

    He’d been too hard on her, not in love with her. Relief coursed through Susan, followed quickly by concern over Dave’s pain. His hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were white. She hesitated, then laid her hand on his forearm.

    “You don’t know that, Dave. You were probably the best thing that ever happened to her.”

    A bell jingled as Dave opened the florist shop door for Susan. She entered the warm, brightly lit room first, breathing in the sweet scent of flowers and loving the way he lightly rested a hand on her back to guide her. The red-haired man at the counter looked up with a professionally welcoming smile. His gaze slid past Susan to rest on Dave, and his smile flickered.

    “Hello, Dave.”

    Dave introduced Susan to Brian, and they shook hands. He was polite, but cool. He didn’t react at all when Dave said she was the new technical writer at ESS, even though he must realize she had replaced Rebecca.

    Brian kept his eyes on Dave. “You’re a long way from Redmond.”

    “We came to ask you why you left the company.”

    Susan had wondered how Dave was going to broach the subject, and he’d surprised her by taking the direct route. Brian simply nodded as this were a reasonable request for a Saturday afternoon. He motioned them to wait and stuck his head through the door to the back of the shop. He spoke quietly with someone and then turned back to them.

    “Let’s go across the street to the park and get a cup of coffee.”

    At the curb, waiting for a break in traffic, Susan studied Brian. He was as tall as Dave, but didn’t have the same wide shoulders or muscular build. He looked thin, almost delicate. This was definitely the man she’d seen run out of Gloria’s office on the first day of work, but he seemed different. He’d been stiff and angry that day, and now he seemed almost too relaxed, as if he might fall over if she pushed him.

    The light turned, and they crossed the street together. Brian moved with a loose, lanky grace. With his rugby shirt and neatly pressed Dockers, he was interchangeable with many of the engineers she’d worked with--except for the red hair.

    No one else was at the espresso cart, so they ordered immediately.

    Brian began to talk. “I’ve been working here at my mother’s shop since I left ESS. First I updated her computer system. Now I’m filling in at the counter.” He shrugged. “Next thing you know I’ll be arranging flowers.”

    They paid for their lattes, and Brian led them toward a long wooden bench under a tree with new green leaves. He was rambling, but Dave didn’t seem to want to interrupt him.

    “I’ve been sending resumes to software companies back east. My younger sister is a systems analyst for a big company in Massachusetts. My father thinks it would be good for her to have me nearby, preferably sharing her apartment, to keep an eye on her. But that’s ridiculous.” His voice became harsh. “I couldn’t keep myself out of trouble, so how can he expect me to help her?”

    They settled onto the bench. Brian sat stiffly upright. Dave leaned over with his elbows on his knees and placed his coffee cup between his scuffed hiking boots. The two men stared into the park, and Susan watched them, sipping her latte, waiting for someone to speak.

    This was a familiar situation, being the only woman in the company of men who seemed to forget she was there. If they’d been at work, Susan would have elbowed her way into the conversation, making sure her ideas were heard. But this was Dave’s show, and she wasn’t going to interfere. Plus, she didn’t think this guy had anything to tell them.

    Dave finally broke the silence without looking up. “Why did you quit?”

    “Because of what happened to Rebecca.” Brian’s voice was almost reproachfully matter of fact. “Why do you ask, Dave? What do you want to know? What do you already know?”

    “I don’t know anything. It bothers me, how she died, and I’m just looking for answers.” His voice was full of raw hurt, and Susan felt a knot tighten in her stomach. “You split right after it happened, so I’m hoping you know something.”

    The request hung in the air between them.

    Brian bit the inside of his cheek and stared into the trees. Then his whole body relaxed, sinking down into itself. He stared at his shoes, which gleamed in the sunlight from a recent polishing. “You’ve got good timing, that’s for sure.”

    Susan wondered what that meant, but she was afraid to ask, lest the question divert his attention from Dave’s request.

    Brian cleared his throat. “I guess the best way to start is to say that she was blackmailing a couple of us guys at work.”

    Susan’s breath caught in her throat, and she looked at Dave to see his reaction. He glared at Brian.

    “What the hell are you talking about?” He hadn’t liked it when Susan had first suggested it, and he seemed to like it even less now.

    What could Brian have done worth blackmail? He was a geek, for God’s sake. She just couldn’t picture him in a sex scandal. “What did she have over you?”


    He had to be talking about the same hair-brained scheme Ken was involved in. Dave opened his mouth, but Susan shook her head. It would be better if they didn’t reveal what they already knew.

    Brian stared at his hands. “There was this email circulating around the company about some people who got caught using fake bar-coded price tags to buy stuff at any price they wanted. We figured since we had been updating Price Tag Designer, we could do the same thing and not get caught. It was like a way to prove how smart we were and how good our software was.”

    Dave barked, “Who is we?”

    “Tom, Ken and me.”

    The wood slats of the bench’s backrest dug into Susan’s shoulder blades. Not Tom! He’d been so helpful since she started at ESS. Of course, this explained why both he and Ken had been acting so erratically. The pressure must be getting unbearable.

    Dave was staring at Brian as if he’d never seen him before. “What makes you think Rebecca was blackmailing you?”

    “She published some of the price tag stickers we used in her manual.”

    Susan pretended to be surprised. “That’s why I found those Computer World stickers in the tutorial!”

    “Yes. It was her way of putting pressure on us, showing us that she had evidence and was willing to use it.”

    Dave shook his head. “How could she possibly have gotten hold of the tags?”

    “I don’t know. All I know is that I went in to work one morning to find a photocopied manual on my chair, and when I flipped through it, I saw proof of the stupidest thing I’ve ever done right there in the open for everyone to see.”

    “Luckily, few people really pay a lot of attention to the manual.” The flippant comment slipped out before Susan could stop herself.

    Brian stood up abruptly. He hadn’t taken a sip from his latte, and he dropped the cold, full cup into the trash can next to the bench. “Would you mind if we walk?”

    A cement path wound through the small park, meandering around the shrubs and flower beds in a lazy, convoluted loop. Few people were in the park, and the three began walking with Brian in the middle.

    “Philip called a status meeting at Starbucks, where we could have some privacy.”

    Susan threw up her hands in exasperation. “He was in on this, too?”

    “No, no.” Brian shook his head vigorously. “When he saw the article, he just sort of dared us to try to do the same thing. He made it sound like he wasn’t sure our version of Price Tag Designer was up to the challenge.”

    After the way Philip had used her to hurt Melanie, Susan would believe he was capable of anything.

    “We jumped on the idea with much prompting.” Brian sighed. “Later, when Philip saw the price tags in Rebecca’s manual, he knew something was wrong. He called her into his office to ask what the hell she was doing, and she told him we would have to pay her to keep quiet. But we didn’t have any money. We had to find a way to protect ourselves from this unreasonable bitch.”

    Susan winced when Brian said “bitch.” She saw Dave clench his fists.

    Brian wiped his hand across his eyes. “We conveniently forgot that we had broken the law and brought the whole thing upon ourselves.”

    Dave was just staring at the path beneath his feet, and Susan felt a pang of sympathy for him. This had to be his worst nightmare, finding out that she really had done something so bad while they were pals.

    She asked Brian a question to keep him talking. “So what did you decide to do?”

    “Philip said if we could get her fired, she’d be too busy looking for work to bother us. Everyone knew she had been caught drunk at work and then locked up in some treatment center for a month. If she was caught under the influence at work again, she would be immediately terminated.”


    Dave realized what Brian was saying and stopped dead in his tracks. “You bastard,” he grunted as if kicked in the gut.

    Susan and Brian had kept walking. They turned back to him just as Dave bolted toward Brian. He grabbed the front of Brian’s shirt and slammed him against a tree at the edge of the path. Brian’s face was pale and his mouth hung open slackly, but he didn’t struggle.

    “You bastard.” He leaned his face close to Brian’s and spat the words at him. “You slipped her Ketamine that night, didn’t you? That’s why she was wasted, that’s why she fell down those stairs.”

    Brian nodded and tears streaked down his cheeks.

    Dave slammed him against the tree again. “She was sober, you asshole. You stole that from her.”

    Realizing how close he was to pounding Brian’s face in, Dave threw him to the ground and stalked down the path to get away. He sucked in air, trying to calm down. His hands were still clenched in fists, and he knew if he had to look at Brian’s face for another second, he would beat him into a bloody mess.

    He couldn’t afford to be arrested again for assault. Rebecca wouldn’t have wanted that.

    Susan looked around to see if anyone had seen Dave toss Brian like a ragdoll into the bed of ivy and pansies. But no one was watching them.

    Dave’s fury had shocked her, and she kept him in her peripheral vision as she watched Brian push himself up from the ground. If what Brian said was true, he deserved whatever Dave did to him, and more.

    Brian swayed for a moment before wiping his face dry and brushing the dirt and leaves from his pants. He glanced in Dave’s general direction like a dog afraid to be hit again, and then he turned and stumbled through the lumpy wet grass toward the flower shop.

    Susan looked for Dave, who was fifty feet down the path, bent over at the waist with his hands braced on his knees. He wasn’t going to stop Brian from leaving. But they couldn’t just let him walk away, not after what he had admitted.

    She caught up with Brian easily. She couldn’t grab his arm to stop him because the thought of touching him disgusted her. Instead she barked, “Where are you going?”

    He halted and stood there limply without turning toward her. His shoulders were slumped and his head hung low, and he refused to make eye contact with her.

    “You can’t admit something like that and then just walk away.”

    His voice sounded tired. “Why do you think I told you? I already decided to go back and turn myself in.”


    “Monday morning.” He glanced in her direction, but couldn’t seem to make eye contact. “I wanted one more day here so I could tell my parents.”

    She believed him. He looked completely defeated.

    He took a step, and something made her blurt, “How could you have done it?”

    Brian paused for a couple of seconds, and then he resumed walking toward the flower shop. This time she didn’t try to stop him. She looked over her shoulder. Dave needed her now.

    Dave tried not to dwell on what those bastards had done, but his mind kept going back to it, like a kid picking at a scab. They didn’t care how hard she’d worked to stay sober. They just wanted to keep their stupid little secret. The worst part was, knowing how much she wanted them to like her, she had probably thanked them for bringing her whatever it was they’d laced with Ketamine.

    The drive back to Seattle was taking forever. He had to talk to Dick or at least get to an AA meeting, where people understood him. But if anyone told him this was God’s will, he might deck them.

    Susan hadn’t spoken much since they left the park. She must think he was a maniac after he grabbed Brian like that. She was staring out the passenger window at the brown, flat scenery. He couldn’t see her expression. Whatever her problem was, he couldn’t help her. He hadn’t been able to help Rebecca either. He lifted his foot from the gas pedal, and the speedometer needle fell back to a more acceptable position.

    Susan mumbled something into the window, and Dave barked, “What?” almost daring her to criticize his driving.

    She cleared her throat and looked at him. “You were right after all. You kept telling me she didn’t relapse, and I thought…” Her voice trailed off.

    Dave had told a lot of people that she hadn’t relapsed, and nobody had believed him. One idiot had even suggested that she hadn’t tried hard enough. He was going back to those meetings and make sure they heard the truth.

    “Dave, I guess I thought you were in denial.”

    He snorted. He didn’t need this kind of psycho-babble crap right now. He loosened his grip on the steering wheel, which he was practically strangling.

    “I thought you couldn’t face the idea that she took those drugs because it might mean that someday you might do the same thing.”

    He gritted his teeth. Susan didn’t know anything about his sobriety, about all the guys he had tried to sponsor who had gone back out drinking and disappeared, how it only made him more committed to staying sober. What had he been thinking of, becoming friends with her? She could never be part of his world, she would never understand him. The anger surged up from his gut, loosening his tongue.

    “Why don’t you just shut up?”

    She recoiled.

    He veered into the left lane to get around the slow-moving minivan he’d been tailgating. “This is not a good time for me, Susan. I’ve had a fucking terrible day, and I’m just not up for it.”

    The rest of the drive passed in silence. Susan stared out the window, trying to sort through her feelings. She was angry with Dave for yelling at her, and she was furious with herself for trying to give him an insensitive, badly-timed pep talk. Why couldn’t she remember that he had cared about this woman? She hoped he didn’t stay mad at her for too long, because they had to figure out what to do next.

    The landscape changed from brown to green as they got closer to home. Her mood darkened anyway. Brian, Ken and Tom had been stunningly cruel and thoughtless. How could they have set those events in motion without thinking where they could lead? She felt like crying every time she pictured Rebecca realizing that she’d been drugged. Maybe she had panicked, and that’s what made her fall down the stairs.

    When Dave pulled up in front of her house, she slipped out of the truck and shut the door without saying goodbye. She half expected him to squeal his tires making his exit, but he rolled away quietly.

    She let herself into the blessedly empty house and went straight up to her bedroom. In five minutes, she was under the covers with her eyes shut. If she could just go to sleep, she wouldn’t have to think about any of this for awhile.

    Steph sprawled in the overstuffed chair beside Susan’s bed with one leg hooked over the arm, waiting for her to wake up. Something terrible must have happened for her to be sleeping at six in the evening. She wound up the music box, knowing that the tinny little notes would wake her up.

    After a few bars, Susan’s eyes opened. She looked at Steph and then buried her face in her pillow.

    Steph knew how to get a rise out of Susan. “You haven’t turned in this early since you heard Jack telling the guys in Wolff’s marketing department you were a wild woman in bed.”

    Susan groaned into her pillow and pulled the covers completely over her head.

    Steph snickered. There had been a time when no one could even say the name “Jack” in front of her. Chris had helped Susan change a flat tire, and even he had had the sense to call the car jack a “lifting mechanism.” Susan had come a long way, although she didn’t seem to realize it.

    Abruptly, Susan sat up, looking bemused. “Hey, Steph, I think I’m over him.”

    Steph grinned. “It’s about time, Pocahontas. So are you going to tell me what happened today?”

    Susan nodded. She piled her pillows against her headboard and settled back against them. She stalled for more time by fussing with the blue and yellow comforter, which matched both the curtains and the slipcover of the chair Steph was in.

    Steph couldn’t wait any longer. She held up her hands in surrender. “I guess I was wrong about Dave. Obviously, he didn’t murder you.”

    Susan frowned. “Actually, I’m not sure where I stand on The Dave Issue anymore.”

    “What do you mean? What happened?”

    Susan stared down at her hands. “We found out something terrible--I’ll tell you about it in a second--and when I tried to talk to him about it, he told me to shut up.”

    Steph’s concern disappeared. She started laughing. “He told you to shut up? Oh man, if there’s one thing you hate--”

    “Steph!” Susan crossed her arms.

    Steph wiped her eyes. “You know, I think I’m going to like this guy after all.”

    Susan threw a pillow at her, which Steph caught. “All right, I’ll stop.” She tucked the pillow behind her in the chair. “Tell me what you guys found out. Then we can talk about how you’re going to patch things up with Dave.”

    The doorbell rang, and Susan jumped up from her spot on the floor. “I’ll take care of it.”

    She scooped the pile of cash from the coffee table and headed for the back door.

    “Do you want me to stop the movie?” Roger held up the remote control. But Susan had seen this one enough times that she didn’t care.

    “Don’t bother.”

    Susan checked the money once more to make sure she had the right amount, plus a tip. Then she opened the door.

    Dave stood there, not the pizza delivery guy. He had his hands stuffed into the pockets of his black leather jacket, and he looked remorseful.

    “Oh, my God.” She was glad to see him, hoping it meant he wanted to remain friends. She was still a little hurt at being yelled at, but she figured she could put her foot down and tell him not to do that anymore.

    “I came over to apologize--”

    “Oh, good. I mean, I’m glad you’re here. Come in, come in.” She waved him in with the handful of cash.

    Dave looked at the money quizzically.

    She stuffed it into her pocket. “We’re waiting for the pizza delivery guy.”

    From the living room, Steph yelled, “Where’s the food?”

    “I’m really sorry--”

    Susan cut him off. “Let me introduce you to them first, okay?”

    He nodded, and she led the way to the living room.

    “It wasn’t the pizza guy.”

    Roger, Chris, and Steph stared at Dave.

    “This is a friend of mine from work.” No one moved. “Roger, you remember Dave Bennett.”

    That propelled Roger to his feet. He shook hands with Dave. “Glad to see you again.”

    Chris was on his feet, too. “Your timing is great. We just ordered a couple of pizzas.”

    “You’ll have to stay,” Steph chimed in. “We always order too much.”

    Dave looked at Susan as if asking her permission. She nodded. It would be great if he stayed. Suddenly she wondered what her hair looked like.

    “Sure, I’d love to help.”

    Chris rubbed his hands together briskly. “Well, that’s settled. Dave, can I get you a beer?”

    “No!” Susan and Roger yelled simultaneously. Susan slapped a hand over her mouth, shocked that she’d been so rude. But Dave didn’t even look at them.

    “Got any Coke?”

    Chris nodded, and then two of them went into the kitchen.

    Steph shook her head at Roger and Susan. “Smooth move.”

    Roger, whose face was red, walked quickly down the hall toward the bathroom, leaving Susan alone with Steph in the living room.

    Steph shook her head. “I can’t believe you told Roger that Dave can’t drink after I told you what anonymous meant.”

    Her angry whisper cut Susan to the quick because it wasn’t true. She hadn’t said a word to Roger about Dave’s alcoholism. Roger had known Dave for awhile, and he hadn’t been specific about when they’d met, so maybe--

    They might have met in AA. The thought rocked through Susan. She stared down the hall where Roger had disappeared.

    She looked at Steph, who was positively fuming at her, but no words would come. She certainly couldn’t say anything about Roger because she had taken the idea of anonymity to heart. That meant she couldn’t even argue that she hadn’t told him, because that might lead Steph to the same conclusion she’d reached.

    Unable to come up with a better solution, Susan shrugged weakly, accepting the blame.

    Steph sighed in disgust and headed for the kitchen.

    Alone in the living room, Susan looked over at the end of the couch where Roger had been sitting. His half-finished bottle of beer was neatly centered, as always, on a coaster. She’d never given much thought to his drinking. He was usually up for a drink, but he rarely had more than one. She’d have to watch him tonight. If he had met Dave in AA, he probably wouldn’t finish his beer.

    The pizza eventually came, and everyone settled down in the living room to eat. Susan was mortified when Steph and Roger vacated the couch and maneuvered things so she and Dave ended up on it together. This wasn’t a date, for God’s sake. Her face burned with the embarrassment.

    But Dave seemed cool as a cucumber. He’d hit it off right away with Chris. And he must have impressed Steph because she kept glancing at him with a goofy smile. She had apparently forgotten all about Ted Bundy.

    Susan finished her first slice of pizza and reached for her soda, which sat on a coaster next to Roger’s beer. He had gotten himself a glass of milk and moved all the way across the room to sit on the ottoman. That wasn’t exactly rock-solid evidence, but it would have to do. She wasn’t willing to take a more direct approach, like offering to bring his beer to him just to see how he reacted. That would be too mean if it turned out she was right.

    Roger turned the TV on to catch the financial news while they devoured the three pizzas. Steph went to the kitchen to get paper napkins.

    A segment on the recent upsurge in Internet companies’ stock prices prompted Chris to bring up the impending IPO at ESS.

    “Yeah, everyone is excited,” Dave said. “Unfortunately, we’re not an Internet company, so I don’t think we’re all going to be millionaires after the first day.”

    “Going public doesn’t make life easier.” Roger shook the remote at the TV. “Now you have to deal with stock analysts and a fickle media.”

    Susan nudged Dave. “Last year, his company failed to meet earnings expectations two quarters in a row.”

    “Our stock tanked,” Roger complained. “It hasn’t gotten out of the teens yet, even though our revenue numbers are strong.”

    When the conversation lagged, Dave turned to Susan and said quietly, “I’d better get going. I was hoping we’d have a chance to talk.”

    Susan stood up. “I’ll walk you out.”

    “Thanks for the pizza, you guys. It was nice to meet you all.”

    She walked out to the kitchen to put on her sneakers and jacket while Dave said goodbye to everyone.

    It was chilly and dark as they walked out to his truck, which was parked under the streetlight. Dave leaned against the hood and shoved his hands in his pockets.

    “Susan, I’m sorry for the way I treated you this afternoon. I was furious, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I didn’t mean the things I said. I hope you can forgive me.”

    “I accept your apology. What Brian told us would be enough to push anyone over the edge.” She wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily. “But I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who talks to me like that, if you know what I mean.”

    He nodded. “I wouldn’t want a friend like that, either.”

    He didn’t try to defend himself. She nodded, satisfied that she’d made her point. “So how are you handling it now? You seem a lot calmer.”

    “I went to a meeting and then talked to my sponsor for a long time this afternoon.”

    “That helped?”

    “Yeah. Sometimes, like today, it’s the only thing that’s going to help.”

    She shook her head. “I wish I had something like that. I feel terrible.” Sadness welled up in her again. “I thought I’d be happy when we finally figured this thing out. But I’m not.”

    He opened his arms and she stepped into his hug. Susan pressed her face to his chest, feeling his heat and the comfort he was offering. He wrapped his arms around her, and she slid her arms around his waist, under his jacket. She’d wanted to do this since she saw him hugging Eileen.

    His hands rubbed slowly across her back, releasing tension she hadn’t even realized was there. Susan exhaled, letting herself melt against him completely. She could feel his heartbeat against her cheek, and smell the heady mix of leather, his spicy cologne, and Dave himself. She felt warm and safe, as if none of the terrible things they’d uncovered could touch her.

    After what seemed like an eternity, one of his hands slid upward, tangling in the hair at the back of her head. Exerting the tiniest hint of pressure, he invited her to tilt her face up to his.

    He wanted to kiss her. Susan’s heart beat faster, matching his. If she was getting this excited just standing here holding him, what would it be like to have his mouth on hers? She shivered.

    It would be so easy to comply. But she couldn’t. This morning, she’d decided to break her vow of celibacy, and she’d ended up getting yelled at. There was no way she was going to tempt fate again until August.

    She slid her hands around to his stomach, trying not to be too distracted by the muscular body under his flannel shirt, and reluctantly levered herself away from him. Of course he let her go, but his hands trailed down her arms as if to prolong the contact as long as possible.

    What could she say? He was trying to walk down a path she wasn’t sure she wanted to be on. She took the coward’s way out. Without looking up, she asked quietly, “So what do we do now about what Brian told us?”

    “We have to tell the cops.” His voice was low. “I already called a guy I know and arranged a meeting for tomorrow morning.”

    Was he planning on leaving her out of it? She bristled. “I’m coming, right?”

    His smile was tender. “You’d better. You’re the one who started asking questions.”

    “Thank you.” She should have known he wanted her there.

    “How about if I pick you up around ten?”

    She nodded.

    He touched her cheek. “Okay. See you tomorrow.”

    Susan stood by the curb and watched him drive away. The wind rustled through the leaves, and she suddenly felt vulnerable standing here alone in the dark. She trotted back into the house and locked the door behind her.


    Chapter 24


    Susan and Dave stepped into the Woodinville Café, and Dave scanned the room for Officer Will Bender.

    “There he is.” He pointed to a man sitting alone in a booth in the back, away from all the other customers. The Sunday brunch rush must have ended because the restaurant was half empty.

    Susan tossed a quick smile over her shoulder at Dave as she walked to the booth. She’d laughed hysterically on the way over when he told her the name of the cop they were meeting. Dave hadn’t gotten the joke until she’d dropped several hints along the lines of, “Can he force us to do things that we don’t want to?” and “How far does he bend your will?” In seven years, Dave had never realized how funny this guy’s name was. It was probably a natural blind spot. Not many people would be able to laugh at the guy who had arrested them at gunpoint.

    Bender had seen them at the door and nodded once in greeting as they approached the booth. He motioned for them to sit. He looked different. He had a tan, which was pretty hard to accomplish naturally in Seattle. His sandy hair was cut short on the sides and long on top, and he was sporting a goatee with a lot of gray. He looked like an older guy trying to get some action. It must be some kind of undercover thing, because Bender was the most uncompromising, by-the-book guy he knew.

    Susan slid into the booth, and Dave shrugged off his jacket and joined her.

    Bender had already started eating. The platter in front of him held a mound of food dripping in white sausage gravy. The waitress rushed over to take their order. Dave ordered a burger, but Susan asked for only iced tea.

    Bender’s hard eyes briefly measured the empty space between Dave and Susan. He was probably trying to decide what kind of relationship they had.

    “What’s going on?”

    He had directed his question to Susan. Dave felt a twinge of annoyance at being ignored. He shook off the feeling. Bender would conduct the interview however he wanted. Dave sat back against the cushioned booth, watching Susan in profile. He loved to hear her talk.

    “A couple of weeks ago, I started working at ESS, where Dave works. I was hired to replace a writer who had died in an accident at work.”

    Bender was nodding. “I remember the case. Cassidy, Kennedy, some kind of Irish name.”

    Dave supplied the name. “Cafferty. Rebecca Cafferty.”

    Bender summarized the facts. “Broken neck. Autopsy revealed recent narcotics use. Interviews uncovered alcohol addiction. Fairly straightforward.”

    The waitress arrived with their food, and Dave just looked at his hamburger. He’d lost his appetite.

    Susan thanked the woman for her iced tea, and then went on. “After I’d been there a week, I found something in her stuff that made me wonder if it had been an accidental death.” She paused, looking down at her hands. “I’m not sure if you want to hear the whole story chronologically or what.”

    “Skip to the punch line.”

    Susan nodded. “Yesterday Dave and I talked to a guy who admitted that he and two other engineers slipped her Ketamine that night because they were trying to get her fired.”

    Bender had frozen with his fork halfway to his mouth. He stared at Susan and then glanced at Dave with a question in his eyes. Dave nodded. The fork was lowered slowly to the plate, and a small notebook came out of his pocket.

    “Let’s start at the beginning again.”


    Chapter 25


    Susan parked at the far end of the lot and grabbed her purse and lunch. She’d brought a frozen burrito because she didn’t want to take the chance of missing anything that happened today. She could picture herself in line at the deli, hearing police sirens and not being able to see anything as they came to take Ken and Tom away for questioning.

    She made sure the car was locked, and she walked toward the front door. Her stomach was in knots with excitement and nervousness. The police might want to talk to her today. They might even want her to go down to the station. Well, she was dressed for it. Her tailored trousers in a thin gray wool and her short-sleeved cream cashmere sweater looked extremely respectable and also managed to be very comfortable, which would help if they questioned her for hours.

    She fingered the single strand of pearls around her neck. They had been a college graduation present from her mother. She hoped the necklace and matching earrings weren’t too much.

    As she pulled open the front door and stepped into the lobby, she decided that if anyone asked why she was so dressed up, she would say all her other clothes were dirty. She didn’t want anyone to think she was expecting something special to happen today. It would be terrible if Ken and Tom were tipped off and disappeared before the police came. It might be even worse if they were arrested and anyone at ESS found out she and Dave were involved.

    She nodded hello to Martha as usual before she realized that it wasn’t Martha on duty. The woman at the receptionist’s desk had black hair twisted up in an elegant bun and was wearing an emerald green suit. The woman winked at her, and Susan realized with a shock that it was Martha.

    What was the flower child doing in that getup? Did she know the police were coming?

    Susan stumbled closer to the receptionist’s desk, noting that Martha was even wearing makeup. She looked fantastic. The phone rang, and Martha sprang into action. She held her headset in one hand, probably to protect her hairdo. Her freshly manicured nails gleamed red.

    Susan hustled down the hall toward her office, trying to figure out how Martha might have learned about today’s festivities. Dave wouldn’t have said anything. Maybe Brian had told someone else what he planned to do. There was no way to know what he might have done.

    Just before she stepped into the relative safety of her closet, Susan saw Philip’s door fling open and hit the wall. He bolted out of his office, heading for the lobby. She noticed with a jolt that he was dressed up, too. He was wearing a button-down white shirt tucked into khaki slacks, which might as well have been a tux when compared to his usual faded jeans and t-shirt.

    She stared at him, but he didn’t even look at her as he strode by with his ponytail flying. He was walking as fast as he probably could without breaking into a jog.

    That’s when she noticed his feet. Philip had shoes on. Real shoes, brown wingtips. Susan’s purse slipped out of her hand and thumped to the floor. She sagged against the door frame. What the heck was going on today?

    Susan found Alice in the ladies room on the third floor, scrubbing at a spot on her shirt with wet paper towels. “Of course I spill coffee on myself the day I have to give a presentation.”

    Susan handed her a dry towel. “Who are you giving a presentation to?”

    “No one told you? There’s a team of investment analysts from Barnett, Walton, and Smyth here today. They’re handling our IPO.”


    A rhythmic, light thumping out in the hallway drew Susan’s attention from the file she was spell checking. She looked up just in time to see someone in green fly past her doorway toward the stairs. Susan got up, but all she saw was the fire door swinging slowly closed.

    The green streak had to be Martha. Susan looked down the hall toward the lobby, wondering why the receptionist was running upstairs. There was only one way to find out, so Susan headed toward the lobby, not sure what she expected to find.

    She turned the corner and stopped short. Two uniformed policemen stood in the middle of the lobby, and they both stared at her. Susan’s throat felt tight, and she swallowed hard to clear it. It amazed her how guilty she felt even though she knew she hadn’t done anything wrong.

    They watched her closely, making her wonder if they had a description of the woman who broke the case. She waved weakly and stepped behind the receptionist’s desk. Lights on the telephone console were blinking, but there was nothing she could do. She didn’t know how to use the machine.

    She walked awkwardly to the elevator and pushed the button, expecting them to stop her. The display said the elevator car was at the second floor. That made sense if some other cops had gone up looking for Tom and Ken.

    A small voice in her head, which sounded remarkably like Steph, warned her not to go up there. But when the doors opened, she got on the elevator anyway. It wasn’t hard to ignore the voice of reason. After everything she’d been through, she wasn’t going to miss any of the good stuff.

    Martha stood outside the conference room where the marketing department was doing their part to impress the investment analysts from Barnett, Walton, and Smyth. She could see Philip sitting near the back of the room, watching the proceedings like a hawk. Anyone who made a mistake would pay for it later. Martha bit the inside of her lip. Letting two police detectives upstairs while the team from BWS was touring the building had been a huge mistake.

    She waved her hands frantically in front of the small glass panel inset in the door, but she couldn’t catch Philip’s attention. She’d have to go in.

    Just as she opened the door, she heard a shout in the hall behind her. She glanced over her shoulder as she stepped into the conference room and saw a white-faced Ken run into the hall, only to be tackled by one of the detectives she’d let into the building.

    She clicked the door shut behind her, and all eyes turned her way. Even Melanie Carter, who stood at the head of the table, stopped talking. The gray haze of boredom that hung low in the room seemed to lighten momentarily with interest. Martha smiled and leaned against the door, hoping she blocked the window.

    “Please don’t let me interrupt you,” she murmured.

    Melanie tapped the projection screen, which displayed a color advertisement for Activity Tracker, and she resumed talking about the print campaign. When everyone was looking at Melanie again, Martha went to Philip and whispered in his ear.

    “The police are here right now looking for Tom Brent and Ken Chan.”

    Every muscle in Philip’s face tightened and he nodded sharply. A wave of cold anger radiated from him. Martha backed away to let Philip out the door first.

    She noticed the gray-suited investment analyst closest to her staring pointedly at her feet. She had kicked off her green pumps before running up here, and she was standing there in her nylons. She winked at him before following Philip out. A little flirtation was a great distraction.

    The elevator doors slid open, and Susan saw her exit was blocked. She felt a flash of annoyance at people who didn’t know that proper elevator etiquette meant letting people off before you push your way on. Then she realized who was standing there.

    A large man in a rumpled gray suit was holding Ken by the upper arm. Ken’s hands were behind his back, and he had a nasty red scrape on his chin and neck. Ken’s gaze was directed toward the floor, so she couldn’t catch his eye.

    The tall guy stepped back, dragging Ken with him. “Exit the elevator now, ma’am.”

    Susan quickly slid by the pair and watched them get on. Ken’s hands were cuffed behind his back. Jeez, it looked like the guy had roughed him up. That didn’t seem necessary, no matter what kind of jerk Ken had turned out to be.

    Tom brushed by Susan and stepped onto the elevator, followed by another guy in a suit. Tom wasn’t cuffed or bruised as far as she could tell. She felt relieved. He had been a pretty good guy to work with.

    A noise made Susan look behind her. About twenty people were clustered along the hall, looking horrified, watching the police take Tom and Ken away. She looked for Dave, but didn’t see him.

    Philip stood in the hall next to Martha in her green suit. He was standing there like a statue, staring at the elevator as the doors closed, his face twisted in a terrible frown. Every muscle was tense and his hands were clenched in fists. It was like he was frozen in fury. Susan shivered, suddenly afraid. She wouldn’t want anyone looking at her that way.

    Susan saw Martha glance up at him and daintily sidestep a few feet away from him--the same way you’d try to put distance between yourself and a mad dog.

    Someone coughed, and a few other people shifted their feet. But on the whole, the crowd was silent, watching Philip, waiting for his lead.

    The conference room door behind him swung open slowly, and one of the investment guys stepped out and gently shut the door behind him. He stopped short when he saw the crowd standing near the elevators, staring back at him. He had a guilty look, like someone sneaking out for a cigarette.

    Susan could imagine how creepy it was to be stared at like that. The guy ran a hand nervously down his tie and actually patted the front of his pants as if checking his zipper.

    “All right, everyone,” Philip’s voice boomed out, drawing the eyes to him. Susan was shocked at the cheeriness he could project. “I know you want to meet the team from BWS, but it really would be better if you all went back to work now.”

    People began moving away, whispering now, going along with it. Of course they would. Their stock options were at stake. No one wanted to let the investment analysts know anything was wrong.

    Susan jabbed the button for the elevator, angry with the people who were so concerned with the money they could make. And she was mad at herself for getting dressed up and excited, as if the arrest were some kind of tea party she had arranged.

    The investment bankers filed out around three in the afternoon, and most of the company snuck out after them like rats abandoning ship. By five, the parking lot was almost empty. Susan kept working, determined to get the Price Tag Designer manual ready for the printer and finish making changes to the Salmon online help. Once the dust settled, Philip would probably fire her. She really wanted to finish her projects before that happened, if only to make Mark’s life easier.

    After a few hours, her instincts for self preservation kicked in and she decided to update her resume. Susan was guarding the laser printer in the hallway outside her office when Jeff Davies ambled down the hall toward her.

    “Hey, you’re still here.”

    He wore a green t-shirt and matching straight leg jeans that emphasized how skinny he was. The guy was all elbows and knees. But he was one of the few people who’d liked Rebecca. For that reason, she was glad to see him.

    When he reached her, he said quietly, “I’ve been hearing rumors all day about why the police came here looking for Tom and Ken.”

    “I’ve heard some rumors too.” She tried to sound casual. She leaned against the wall, indicating that she’d hang out and talk if that’s what he wanted.

    He crossed his arms. “They drugged her, and that’s why she fell down the stairs. It’s hard to believe that anyone could be that cruel.”

    Susan just nodded, not sure what exactly he knew, not sure if she wanted him to know what she’d done.

    The printer spit out a page. It had to be her resume, but since it was face down, she let it lie there.

    “I’ve been here plenty of nights, eating and drinking whatever I found in the coffee room.” He shuddered.

    “You were her friend, Jeff. Do you think she was really trying to blackmail them?”

    He looked away, suddenly unable to maintain eye contact. “She never said anything about blackmailing Brian and the other guys.”

    “Did she talk about blackmailing someone else?”

    He tugged at his goatee. His voice dropped almost to a whisper, and she practically had to read his lips. “Something like that.” He stared at her for a few seconds before continuing. “I heard you were the one who went to the police with the story about Brian and the guys.”

    She nodded.

    “That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I might know something that the police should know, but I didn’t want to go to them directly. I don’t really want to get involved.” He glanced at the door again. “I can’t talk about this here.”

    “Okay, let’s get out of the building.” Where could they meet? She thought fast. “How about the QFC in the fruit section?”

    He nodded. “Ten minutes.”

    Susan grabbed her resume off the printer and ran to her office for her keys and purse.


    As she walked through the automatic doors at the grocery store, Susan grabbed a green plastic basket so she wouldn’t look too suspicious lurking in the produce department. She didn’t see Jeff, so she circled a bin of oranges until she had a clear view of the main entrance. She picked up an orange and sniffed it, wondering how you were supposed to tell which ones were good. She hated getting oranges home only to find out they were dry.

    A cheerful stock boy said hello on his way past her with a cart full of bananas.

    Then Jeff appeared at her elbow, also sniffing an orange. He must have come from behind her. He was very good at the spy routine, and Susan suddenly hoped that he wasn’t pulling her leg. His green shopping basket held two bottles of antacid.

    “What did you want to tell me?”

    He appeared to be studying the oranges, and he began speaking softly without looking at her. “Last summer, a few months before they sent her away to that ranch, Rebecca told me she had uncovered a big secret about Philip. She wanted to know if I would help her spread the news and destroy his reputation.”

    Susan found herself staring, open-mouthed, at Jeff, and she forced herself to look away.

    “I said no, I was too scared of him, and I tried to talk her out of it. Some time went by, and the story never came out, so I thought she had decided to drop it. Then she told me that she had gone to him directly and hinted at what she knew. She told him she wanted to be the lead writer on Activity Tracker. He pulled some strings and she got what she wanted.”

    Patty had once said she couldn’t understand how Rebecca had gotten such a plum assignment. Susan now knew the reason.

    “Anyway, she gave me the proof of what she knew and said I should keep it for a rainy day. But I never wanted it, and I even forgot about it. That is, until she turned up dead. Anyway, I want to give you what she gave me, and you can decide if the police need to know about it.”

    Jeff pulled a 7-by-9 yellow envelope from inside his jacket and dropped it in Susan’s shopping basket on top of the three oranges she’d selected. He moved to the next produce bin and began examining onions.

    Susan wasn’t sure if he thought the conversation was over, but she wasn’t letting him leave without more of an explanation. She meandered around to the side of the bin that held a surprising variety of potatoes.

    “What’s in the envelope? What did she have on him?”

    Jeff glanced around, but the only people near them looked like harried professionals scrambling to find something for dinner. There was a small crowd at the salad bar.

    “Three floppies that contain the source code for an early version of Activity Tracker. Philip always talks about how he heroically coded that program in two months and raked in enough venture capital to start ESS. But this version has someone else’s name on it. So either Philip stole the software or bought it--it didn’t matter to Rebecca. She saw it as her chance to show the world that he was a liar.”

    “Whose name is on the program?”

    “I don’t remember. Rebecca said she found out he was a classmate of Philip’s at MIT, but she never bothered to contact him as far as I know.”

    Susan put down the sweet potato she was holding and looked directly at Jeff. She’d had enough of the spy routine. “Is there anything else?”

    He shook his head at a bag of small yellow onions.

    “Thanks for telling me this. I don’t know how it fits in yet, but you’ve been a big help. I might have to ask you more questions later. Is that all right?”

    He nodded at a red onion.

    “I’ll leave first, and you can follow whenever you feel comfortable. Bye, Jeff.”

    Susan headed for the checkout stands. She would buy the oranges and then call Dave from her car. She couldn’t wait to fill him in. Maybe this new information could help them answer their lingering questions about what really happened.

    Susan parked behind Dave’s pickup truck on the gravel driveway. It had been much easier to find the house this time. She tucked Jeff’s yellow envelope into the plastic grocery sack with her oranges and got out of the car. She didn’t bother locking the doors since they were out in the middle of nowhere.

    Dave held the mud room door open for her. “Thanks for coming out here. I can’t wait to hear the big secret.”

    She hugged him, enjoying the quick dose of his heat. “I’m glad you invited me over. I didn’t want to wait till tomorrow.”

    Dave held a finger to his lips. “Dick and Carol are asleep.”

    She followed him through the kitchen, which smelled like chocolate chip cookies. This time, she noticed the flowered wallpaper and the pretty gingham curtains. There was something exciting about sneaking down to his apartment in the middle of the night.

    All the lights were on downstairs.

    “Would you like something to drink?”

    “I know it’s late, but I’d love a cup of coffee. I’m freezing.” Her thin cashmere sweater didn’t provide much protection from the cold.

    “You got it.”

    She pulled the envelope from the plastic bag and dropped them both on the sturdy pine coffee table. She kicked off her loafers and curled up in a corner of the couch. She sank into the deep cushions and sighed. She felt good here, warm and safe.

    After a few minutes, Dave came back from the kitchen. He handed her a steaming mug of coffee and put a plate of cookies on the coffee table near her.

    “Carol baked tonight.”

    Susan sipped her coffee and devoured a couple of delicious oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies, realizing that she’d forgotten to eat dinner. If she ever met Carol, she’d have to ask for the recipe. These cookies were so good, they might earn her a promotion.

    As he settled on the other end of the couch, he picked up the envelope. He stretched his legs out and put his stocking feet on the coffee table, turning the envelope over in his hands. “So this is it?”


    He opened the envelope and dumped the floppies into his lap. The 5 ¼ inch diskettes looked old fashioned and flimsy compared to the 3 ½ inch disks and CD-ROMs everyone used these days. Susan suddenly realized how hard it was going to be to find a PC with a working 5 ¼ inch drive.

    He shook his head. “These puppies are a blast from the past. I’ll have to think for a minute to come up with a machine we can use to-- What’s so funny?”

    “I was just thinking the same thing!”

    They grinned at each other, and Susan became aware of how intimate they were, sharing the couch in his apartment, laughing at themselves. It felt right.

    “We can’t get into the floppies tonight, so why don’t you tell me what Jeff told you?”

    Susan repeated the story and added a description of Jeff’s strange behavior in the grocery store. “But I’m not sure how this fits in with what we already know.”

    Dave stared into space. “It could mean anything. It could be proof that she really was capable of blackmail, making Brian’s story all the more credible.”

    He sounded so depressed. She knew he didn’t want to admit Rebecca could be so bad. Susan couldn’t resist the urge to humor him. “The guys saw some price tags in a review copy and assumed she was blackmailing them. She never spoke directly to any of them, did she?”

    He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Didn’t Brian say she told Philip what she wanted? Isn’t Philip the one who told them she was blackmailing them?”

    “You think he made it up? Then why did she put those price tags in her book?”

    “I don’t know.” He sounded tired and frustrated.

    Susan sipped her coffee, angry at herself for leading him on. She should have let him face the truth about Rebecca.

    He leaned forward to place his glasses and the floppies on the coffee table. When he turned back to her, Susan was struck by how blue his eyes were.

    “I guess it’s up to the cops. They’ve had Brian, Tom, and Ken all day.”

    “If Philip is involved, do you think one of them would say so?”

    He laughed. “No. Half the guys in engineering wet their pants when they hear Philip’s voice. Remember what Brian said? Philip dared them to use their own software to make fake price tags, and they did it.”

    “Do you really think Philip was involved in Rebecca’s death? She could have made him look bad, but that’s not really worth killing over.”

    He shrugged. “We don’t know the whole story. This is a stretch, but what if he didn’t buy the rights to the software? What if he stole the program from one of his classmates? Activity Tracker is worth millions of dollars. Philip might not want to share. If she threatened to contact the guy, that would be reason enough to shut her up.”

    They were both silent for awhile while this sank it.

    “We might have gotten Tom and Brian and Ken in a lot more trouble than they deserve.” His tone was grave.

    Susan nodded, feeling sick. If they’d made a mistake, they’d have to fix it. “So basically we have to find this mystery programmer and find out what he has to say.”

    “Let’s go in early tomorrow before anyone is around. There’s a PC in shipping that has a working 5 ¼ inch drive. We probably only have to print one file to find out the name of the programmer.”

    Susan nodded. “How early? The mail room guys start work at six.”

    “That’s early enough.” Dave grimaced.

    Something nagged at the back of her mind. Something about nine o’clock. Her smile disappeared. “I have a meeting with Philip tomorrow. I’m showing him my questionnaire for the beta testers. I’ll have to act as though everything’s normal.”

    “You can do it.”

    He was right. So far, every time she’d seen Philip she’d had to pretend she didn’t mind that he was so bizarre.

    Dave stretched his arms over his head and settled even more comfortably into the couch. Susan had been there for quite awhile already. They were finished discussing Jeff’s secret. Maybe she should go. She couldn’t keep him up all night. She put her empty coffee mug on the coffee table.

    “I guess I’d better go.” But she made no move to get up.

    There was the crinkle of plastic as he nudged the grocery sack with his foot. “What’s in the bag?”

    “A hostess gift.”

    He looked confused, so she explained. “You know, when you go to someone’s house, you give them a present to thank them for their hospitality.” She grinned. “I’m giving you the oranges I picked out while pretending not to talk to Jeff at the grocery store. I hope you like oranges.”

    He took his feet off the coffee table and slid to the middle of the couch so he could reach the bag. He took out an orange and rolled it in his hands.

    “Thank you. Are you going to give me a present every time you come over?”

    Something in his gaze made her breath catch. He was flirting with her. Her heart pounded. She’d been fighting her attraction to him from the beginning, and she couldn’t remember any of the reasons why that had seemed necessary.

    “Are you going to invite me over again?”

    His slow smile made her temperature rise about ten degrees. “So far you’ve been an excellent guest.”

    She leaned toward him in what she hoped he’d take as an invitation. “I have very good manners.”

    “You do.”

    He leaned toward her, and they kissed. It was heavenly. He teased her, though, by pulling back. He pressed a series of soft, sweet kisses onto her mouth, until Susan slid an arm around his neck to pull him closer and deepen the kiss.

    He tasted wonderful, like chocolate chips and sex.

    Dave wrapped his arms around her. After a moment, he twisted and let himself fall back against the couch, pulling her with him. Suddenly she was straddling his lap, feeling his muscular thighs between her legs. He was aroused. A shiver shook her.

    He broke contact with her mouth and murmured, “I’ve wanted you for so long.”

    His hands slid down her back to cup her bottom, urging her to press against his erection. She did, loving the way she could feel every inch through the soft cloth of his sweatpants. There was no question that he wanted her, and the feeling made her bold.

    “Dave, you feel so good.” Her voice was husky in his ear, and she kissed his neck.

    His hands, which had begun sliding up her back underneath her sweater, went still. Susan paused, too. Maybe his neck was ticklish. She reached for the bottom of his sweatshirt, determined to pull it off and find some other spot to explore.

    He whispered something, but she ignored it. She was staring at his flat stomach and the gorgeous muscles she’d uncovered. He’d have to lean forward if she were going to pull the sweatshirt off him.

    “Susan, we have to stop.” It sounded like the words were wrung out of him. “I don’t have any protection.”

    The word “protection” caught her attention. She certainly didn’t have any on her, either. She looked up into his face. His eyes were very dark, with just a rim of blue, but he had a presence of mind that she hadn’t had. Thank God.

    His hands flexed on her hips. “Are you okay?” He was so sweet and concerned.

    She nodded. She realized she was gripping his blue sweatshirt with both hands, and she made herself let go. She could pretend to be offended at his assumption that they needed condoms the first time they’d even kissed, but that was silly. She’d been about to rip his clothes off, and they both knew it.

    She slid off his lap back onto the couch, putting a few inches of space between them. “Now I really do have to go.”

    She’d been trying to make a joke, but her voice sounded funny. She felt bowled over at how quickly she’d lost her head with him. She was supposed to be celibate for another five months. He knew about that. What he didn’t know was that she hadn’t decided yet if it was a good idea to get involved with a recovering alcoholic. She couldn’t say anything like that to him, especially since her body had made its decision clear.

    He curved a hand around her arm. “We need to talk about this.”

    One of the oranges had fallen to the floor. Susan handed it to him. “I’m not really available right now for a relationship.”

    “I know. You told me.”

    So he had understood what she’d meant that evening in Java Jungle. “I need to honor the commitment I made to myself.”

    “I completely agree.”

    It was her turn, but Susan couldn’t think of anything to say that didn’t sound like a crass invitation to rush out and make hotel reservations for August fifteenth.

    Dave took pity on her. “Let’s pretend you’re in your first year of sobriety, when you’re not supposed to get involved in a new relationship. If you told me that this had happened, I would tell you to cool it until your year was up. You could still see the guy, go to lunch, walk in the park, maybe catch a summer blues concert on the pier…”

    The last one sounded like a real invitation. Susan nodded quickly to accept.

    He shook his head. “But no more making out. No kissing at all. Obviously the two of you can’t be trusted. It wouldn’t be right to squeak by on a technicality if you do everything but the actual act, if you know what I mean.”

    Instead of making a Clinton joke, Susan asked, “And in August?”

    “You reevaluate the friendship, ask yourself if you want to start dating for real.” He grinned. “You never know. By August, you might not even like the guy anymore.”

    “What if he doesn’t want to wait?”

    “He’d have to be a complete idiot not to wait.”

    Susan grinned. She stuck out her hand for Dave to shake. “I’d like to thank you for a lovely evening.”

    He grasped her hand with both of his. “It was my pleasure.”

    She slid her feet into her loafers and smoothed her hands down her sweater, hoping she didn’t look too mussed. Dave dropped the floppies back into the yellow envelope and handed it to her, along with her purse. He walked her out with one hand pressed to the middle of her back. In the mud room, they paused so he could shove his feet into a pair of sneakers. Outside, a cold wind cut through her thin sweater, carrying the sharp smell of new bark.

    He opened the car door for her. “I’ll see you at six tomorrow by the loading dock.”

    She wanted to kiss him goodnight, but Mr. Self Control had positioned himself so the door was between them.

    Susan got into the car. “I’ll pick up the lattes this time. What do you like?”

    “You don’t have to do that.”

    “I want to.”

    He capitulated. “Grande, nonfat, extra hot.”

    She waved to him as she backed out of the driveway.


    Chapter 26


    My God, he was a good kisser. Susan pressed her fingers to her lips. He’d said he had wanted her for a long time. She had to admit she’d felt his attraction to her, but he’d never pressured her. Not like Jack. He’d pushed her into sex too soon, and then he’d bragged about it to the guys in marketing. Dave was a million times better than Jack.

    He sure lived out in the boondocks, though. The main road through Woodinville stretched ahead of her for miles, dark and empty. A lonely traffic signal in the distance turned red.

    Susan slowed the car, trying to remember where she had seen a 5 ¼ inch floppy drive at work. Not on her PC, and not on Patty’s. Tom and Ken had brand spanking new machines with DVD, CD-ROM, and 3 ½ inch drives. What other computers had she noticed at work?

    She shook her head. That approach wasn’t going to work. She had to come at it from another direction. She tried to visualize the drive in question. It looked so goofy and old-fashioned, with the little knob that you had to turn down to lock the disk in. What had she been doing when she saw that drive? She had been holding papers in her hand and waiting--

    She had it. The floppy drive was on the old PC next to the laser printer in Alice’s lab. It displayed the print queue. She’d certainly spent enough time hanging out waiting for pages to print to remember it.

    Susan realized she sitting at a green light. She accelerated quickly, glad no one else was on the road. She glanced at the clock. It was almost midnight. That was kind of late, but she wasn’t tired at all. In fact, Susan hadn’t felt this wide awake for a long time.

    She looked over at the yellow envelope on the passenger seat next to her purse, and the badge clipped to her purse strap caught her eye. She could unlock the door at ESS with her badge and get it. She could print the contents of the disk tonight with nobody around to ask any questions. She grinned. There was no reason to wait until tomorrow.


    The parking lot at ESS was completely empty, and Susan pulled into the spot closest to the door. Powerful lights illuminated most of the lot and the walkway up to the front door, but the shadows and quiet gave Susan the creeps. She walked quickly to the black scanner mounted beside the door and pressed her badge to it. The red light turned green, and the door clicked open. She was in.

    The lobby was dimly lit, and Susan went right to the elevator. No need to drop by her office. She pushed the button for the third floor. Next stop, Alice’s lab.


    Susan grabbed the first page of the printout as it came out of the printer. At the top of the page was a comment box with vital statistics about the program, like the name, date, programming language, compiler, and a blurb describing what Activity Tracker did. She grinned. The programmer had signed his work with this tag line: Ron Haverton, Code Warrior, Bug Slayer, and Poet. His ego cracked her up, and she wondered what he was like in person. He might be larger than life, crackling with software genius, or he could be a mousy little guy with a clammy handshake. She hoped for the former.

    The rest of the printout was a little disappointing. She didn’t know enough about C programming to make out anything more than what Jeff had told her: that this seemed to be an old copy of Activity Tracker, but with some other programmer’s name on it instead of Philip’s.

    Susan sat on the edge of the table and crossed her arms. She wasn’t going to get anything from the printout. Too bad she couldn’t talk to this guy, Ron. He probably had some reasonable explanation--if he would even talk to a crazy woman who called him up and asked about software he wrote four years ago.

    She could try tracking him down on the web. The web had sites like yellow pages that let you search all over the world for people. And here she was in a room full of computers connected to the web. It was heaven.

    She picked the best machine, the newest and fastest PC, the one she didn’t have a chance to get near during regular working hours, and she sat down in front of it and pushed the power button. In a couple of minutes, the PC had finished booting and she was at a web site called yellow pages. In the name field, she typed RON HAVERTON and clicked the search button. Now all she had to do was wait.


    The data streaming out of Susan’s PC zipped across the company network. There was very little traffic to slow it down. When it reached the NT server in the computer room that funneled all such traffic out onto the Internet, something strange happened. It came to the attention of a little program called watch.exe. This program was always running, examining data packets as they flew by, looking for several variations of the text string, “Ron Haverton.”

    When watch.exe found Ron’s name in Susan’s data, it kicked off a subroutine that dialed out on a phone line to a beeper. The message consisted of the IP address of the computer inside ESS from which the request for information about Ron Haverton had originated.

    Then watch.exe went back to looking at the data flying by on the network.

    And somewhere in the greater Seattle area, a Motorola beeper vibrated. The owner read the message and swore softly. Someone was snooping. At this time of night, with no traffic to contend with, it wouldn’t take him long to get to ESS and take care of the problem.

    Aided by distracted humans and her own quick thinking, Lucky had escaped from the IT department and had been roaming around the building all night. Right now she was in the computer lab on the top floor, far from her litter box, and surrounded by humming machines with interesting twinkling lights. Lucky was stretched out on the table next to the computer Susan was using, occasionally bumping her furry head into Susan’s hand to demand continued petting.

    Susan hated being alone at work late at night. Dark offices and hallways made her vaguely nervous. The cat wasn’t helping any. Lucky’s eyes were wide and round, and her ears perked straight up, and she kept staring over Susan’s shoulder with such intense interest that Susan had turned around three times already to make sure there was no one behind her in the doorway. She gently scratched under the cat’s chin.

    “You’d make a terrible watch dog, you know.”

    Susan poked around the Boston Globe’s home page and finally reached the form for entering keywords to search the newspaper’s archives. She typed “Ron Haverton” and clicked the OK button.

    If this didn’t work, she could try the MIT web page and maybe some engineering bulletin boards.

    The computer beeped, and the screen indicated that it had found two Boston Globe articles featuring the name Ron Haverton.

    Susan skimmed the text of the first article, which described a twenty thousand dollar donation Ronald “Ron” Joseph Haverton had made to Boston area Boys and Girls Clubs in December of 1989 to finance the acquisition of computer equipment. It was curious that a grad student would have that much money for charity. If the donation hadn’t been for computers, Susan would have thought she was reading about the wrong guy.

    Lucky put a white paw on the edge of the keyboard, and Susan absently rubbed behind her ears while she waited for the text of the second article to appear.

    Susan read the second article twice before the facts sank in. She pressed her right hand to her heart, trying to give herself some kind of anchor as her mind reeled.

    On September 9, 1990, Ron Haverton had been found dead in his home by his cleaning lady. Apparently, he had died the previous day after falling down the stairs to the basement. Investigators theorized that he tripped on the loose carpeting on the top step.

    The man whose name was on Philip Corbin’s pet software project had died after falling down some stairs. Years later, a tech writer who found that man’s name on an old diskette had met the same fate. It was an impossible coincidence.

    Lucky meowed sharply. Susan looked at the cat, whose tail was now whipping back and forth across the table. Lucky jumped from the table and streaked away, and Susan heard a soft footstep behind her. Her heart pounded. She minimized the window that showed the Boston Globe article.

    Without turning around, she said cheerfully, “I thought I was the only one working tonight.”

    “Good evening, Susan.” It was Philip! His voice was closer to her than she had expected. “I shouldn’t be surprised that you’re here. Your resume did say you were a self starter, someone who took initiative.”

    Susan couldn’t make herself turn her head toward that voice. Her neck muscles had frozen. After a few seconds, she slowly spun her chair until she faced him. In the dim light, he was little more than a dark silhouette looming between her and the door.

    She wasn’t going to be that easy to kill, she promised herself. Her right hand slid away from her heart, down to the pocket where she was carrying Steph’s pepper spray. Maybe she could distract him by playing innocent.

    “Is there something I can help you with?”

    He snarled something; it didn’t seem like words. She could smell the sweat coming off him now. He moved fast, jumping forward and clamping his hands on her shoulders. The whole chair tilted back. He leaned in close, and she could see the facial tic making his right eye wink uncontrollably.

    “Why are you doing this to me?” His spit sprayed her face. “I thought you were smarter than this. I thought you--”

    She managed to pull the pepper spray from her pocket, but he smacked it away before she could aim it. Furious, she leaned toward the hand gripping her shoulder and bit his wrist as hard as she could. He screamed and jumped back, letting her bolt toward the doorway.

    Susan had taken a few steps down the hall when his body slammed into her, bringing her straight down to the floor. Her chin rapped against the floor and she tasted blood. His weight held her immobile. She couldn’t even take in a breath. Her panic turned into a deeper, animal terror as she felt him pressing down on her, between her legs.

    Then he was off her, twisting her arm behind her back and lifting her to her feet. She sobbed in relief.

    “I’ll break your arm if I have to.” He tugged upward on the arm to make his point. Susan’s shoulder felt like it was on fire. “So don’t fuck with me.”

    He strode down the hall, pushing her ahead of him. “I can’t believe I have to do this again. I can’t believe you’re making me do this. Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone?”

    She tried to make sense of his mutterings, tried to regain some composure. Maybe it wasn’t too late to talk him out of it. She blinked her eyes. Which direction were they moving in? She tried to slow their progress by digging her feet into the carpet, but her loafers had no traction and slid easily along.

    “Rebecca was so much easier to deal with. I just told her to put those price tags into her review copy, and she did it. No questions asked.” He shook her roughly. “She never showed up in the middle of the night, snooping around like a nosy bitch.”

    Susan realized they were headed for the stairway. What had he told her that day in his office? If you find a method that works, you should use it again and again--

    “Philip, you can’t throw me down the stairs! There’s no way anyone would believe it was an accident.”

    He pushed her face forward into the wall. “We’re not headed for the stairs.” They were at the elevator. He pushed the button.

    “Let me go and I won’t tell anyone what you did.” She was babbling but she couldn’t help herself.

    “Shut up!” He pulled her hair, yanking her head back. He squashed her to the wall by leaning against her. Susan had to struggle to take in air.

    Philip’s lips just grazed her ear. “I came up with something special just for you.”

    She tried to pull away from his hot breath, but his grip was like iron.

    “We’re going to the coffee room. You’re going to try to get a can of pop from the machine without paying for it. All of Martha’s little signs put the idea in your head. But you’re going to tip it too far, and it’s going to fall right over on top of you. They won’t find your body until Monday morning.”

    Susan pictured the front of the machine rushing down onto her and immediately tried to push the image out of her head. She could get away from him, if she stayed calm. He was taking her to the coffee room. There had to be something there she could use as a weapon. If she could wriggle away from him, she would be able to grab a sharp knife from that junk drawer. Or she could just bean him with the glass coffee pot.

    “I wish I had a more dignified way for you to make your exit, but this was all I could come up with.” He sighed. “It’s not as easy as you’d think to die in an office building.”

    The elevator doors opened, and he pushed her into the car ahead of him and let her go. She slid along the wall until she squeezed herself into the corner. The arm he’d twisted behind her back ached, but at least it was free.

    After he pressed the button for the second floor, the doors closed.

    Philip wiped his face on his sleeve. “Since you won’t be around much longer, the FTC shouldn’t mind if I let you in on the big secret. Our stock is finally going public next week. This is the moment I have been waiting for since I first wrestled the software away from stupid, rich boy Ron.”

    “So you admit that you killed Ron for the program he wrote?” Her voice sounded shaky, but she was determined to regain control of the situation.

    He shot her a look of impatience and combed his fingers through his hair. “Please, let’s not go there. You’re not going to survive this, so why even attempt to worm a confession out of me?”

    She panicked. Susan took a deep breath and let loose with a scream that hurt even her ears. Her head slammed against the wall, cutting off her scream. He must have punched her. Dizzy, Susan started sliding to the floor, but Philip leaned against her to hold her upright. His large hand clamped over her nose and mouth cutting off her air. Desperate for air, she tried to shake free. She couldn’t. She scratched his hand until he pulled it away and she could suck in some air.

    Philip dragged her out of the elevator on the second floor and stopped short. Mark Eastman stood in front of the elevator in a fighter’s crouch. He must have heard her scream.

    “What the hell are you doing here?” Philip bellowed.

    Mark straightened up and stuttered, “Working on my novel.”

    Then he really looked at Susan, who was gasping for air, and he hauled back and laid a roundhouse punch to Philip’s jaw. Philip stumbled back into the elevator.

    Mark helped Susan to her feet and told her to run as Philip stirred.

    Susan ran down the dim hallway toward the Pit. Her face ached, and she couldn’t seem to get enough air. She needed to hide from Philip and phone for help.

    The Pit was completely dark except for various screen savers on monitors that were never turned off. She plunged into the maze of desks and skidded to her knees somewhere in the middle of the room.

    She crouched behind a desk and pulled the phone to the floor. She dialed 9 for an outside line and then punched 911. Afraid to speak lest that give away her location, she crawled to the next desk and did the same. The police would have to come investigate multiple silent 911 calls from one address. With any luck, someone would recognize the company name and talk to the detectives who had taken Tom and Ken away.

    Susan was almost at the back door to the Pit when she heard pounding footsteps and labored breathing as someone burst into the room. It had to be Philip. She froze.

    As the harsh panting quieted, she could hear the faint, tinny sounds of several 911 operators’ voices requesting information.

    An agonized groan came from the doorway, then with a click, the overhead lights all came on in a blinding flash.

    On all fours, Susan scrambled the last few feet and launched herself through the back doorway into the next room. She jumped to her feet. A warren of cubicles stretched ahead of her. Instinctively, she flattened herself against the wall so that when he came flying through the door, he went right by her. She took off back through the Pit, heading for the coffee room. She didn’t want to go anywhere near the pop machine, but she had to get her hands on one of those big, sharp knives.

    Dave was completely wide awake and energized. At this rate, he wouldn’t fall asleep until three a.m., and there would be hell to pay when his alarm went off at seven. But he didn’t care. Tonight he’d finally kissed Susan. The way she’d kissed him back and squirmed in his lap had to mean she felt something for him, too.

    She’d been driving him crazy since they’d met, flirting with him one minute and then backing away. He’d fully intended to respect her vow of celibacy, but he’d been determined to kiss her, lay claim to her, make her admit the attraction between them.

    He groaned. He had to stop thinking about her. Maybe work would distract him. Dave booted his computer and logged onto ESS’s secure web site. After he checked his email and made sure the network was up, maybe he’d start feeling drowsy.

    Out of habit, he clicked the coffee cam icon. It took ten seconds for the image to appear in a small window on his screen. The coffee machine was off, and the pots were empty. Good. Leaving the burners on all night had to create some kind of fire hazard.

    He clicked the little envelope icon to download his email, wondering if he should send a message to Susan. He shook his head. What could he say? “It’s not going to be easy, but I’ll wait as long as it takes.”

    Movement in the coffee cam window caught his eye. Someone stepped up to the coffee maker, but the guy’s back was to the camera. He was small, with dark hair. He opened the junk drawer. The video image was jerky over the remote connection. Who was making coffee after midnight on a Monday?

    The guy slammed the drawer shut and spun around, leaning back against the coffee maker. Dave saw a flash of silver and a familiar profile. It was Susan! She brandished a large butcher knife. She launched herself away from the counter, out of range of the camera.

    Dave stared at the video, trying to process what he’d seen. Her eyes had been wide as saucers. Even with the crappy video stream, she looked panicked. What the hell was going on down there?

    He grabbed his keys and cell phone, dialing 911 as he pounded up the stairs. Please, God, let someone get there in time.

    Susan ran out of the coffee room at full speed, desperate to put as much distance as she could between herself and the soda machine.

    “What the fuck is going on here?” Mark stood up from behind one of the bookcases.

    Susan skidded to a halt. “He’s trying to kill me.”

    “Philip? Why?”

    “I found out he killed Rebecca and some guy named Ron. Oh God, there he is!”

    Philip came out of the Pit and started walking down the middle of the hallway toward them. His arms hung down at his sides. Susan pointed the chef’s knife in his direction, but his steps didn’t falter.

    “Come on, let’s go.” Mark tugged at her sweater. “We can go out the side door.”

    She shook off his hand. “What are you, crazy? I’m not going down those stairs. He threw Rebecca down those stairs.” She lunged across the hallway and pressed the elevator button, but the doors didn’t open.

    “There’s no time,” Mark hissed.

    They ran down the hallway toward the green exit light above the fire door. Susan could only hear their pounding footsteps and her own gasps for air. She couldn’t tell if Philip was running behind them, and she didn’t dare turn around. She couldn’t bear it if he got his hands on her again.

    Mark was much faster than she was, and he reached the door first and pushed it open. Susan saw the fear on his face as he looked over her shoulder.

    “Come on, come on!” He waved her through the door. As she jumped into the stairwell, he swung the door shut and braced himself against it to hold it closed. There was no lock.

    She leapt back to the door to help him, but he shook his head. “Get out of here, Susan. I can hold him.”

    Her protest was interrupted by a huge thump that pushed the door open an inch before Mark’s weight slammed it closed. His sneakers squeaked in protest as they slid on the linoleum.

    “Head for the mini-mart on the corner. They’re open all night.”

    “What about you?”

    He grinned. “I can outrun this bastard. If I think he’s coming through, I’ll sprint upstairs. Now go!”

    She hesitated for a second, but Mark was right. She took off down the stairs, hearing another huge thump as she reached the first floor stairwell. She burst through the exterior door without looking back.

    A flood of white light blinded her.

    “Halt! This is the police.”

    The command was so loud it hurt her ears. Susan automatically brought her arms up, trying to shield her eyes from the light. Thank God the 911 calls had worked.

    “Drop the knife!”

    Susan let the blade fall to the ground, and someone immediately scooped it up. She could see that she was surrounded by police officers with their weapons drawn. With all those gun barrels pointing toward her, Susan suddenly couldn’t take in a breath. If one officer made a mistake, she could end up dead. They had no way of knowing she was the victim here.

    “Get down on the ground. Now!”

    The door behind her slammed open, and Susan spun toward the noise.

    Philip held some kind of pipe over his head. He roared, “You bitch!” and lunged for her.

    Something huge and hard hit Susan from the side, propelling her out of the way. She hit the ground. The grass absorbed some of the impact, but her breath was knocked out of her. A loud cracking sound split the air, followed by silence.

    Susan gasped for air. The murmur of voices rose.

    Someone pulled Susan to her feet. She tried to see what had happened, but there were too many people in the way.

    “Did they shoot him? Is he dead?” Her voice sounded very loud and shaky. “He was trying to kill me. He already killed two people.”

    The officer practically dragged her around the building toward an ambulance.

    Susan remembered Mark.

    She dug her heels into the grass and refused to budge until he listened to her. “My boss is still in the building. His name is Mark Eastman. He helped me get away from Philip. He’s probably hiding on the third floor. Tell them he’s one of the good guys, okay?”

    Susan sat in the back of an ambulance in the parking lot. A uniformed policewoman was glued to her side. A paramedic was examining her right arm, which looked like one huge bruise from her wrist on up.

    Susan used her left hand to brush the grass and dirt from her sweater. Her good wool trousers were ripped at one knee, and she’d lost her pearls at some point. A giggle bubbled up from her chest. What the hell had she been thinking this morning, getting dressed up because the police were coming? She pressed a hand to her mouth, afraid that if she let go now she’d fall apart.

    Across the parking lot, a second ambulance started up its lights and siren and drove off. Philip must not be dead if they were rushing him to the hospital.

    “Do I need to go to the hospital?”

    “This arm has to be x-rayed.”

    She shivered. “Can you make sure I don’t end up in the same place he is?”

    “Don’t worry, that’s standard procedure. And that guy’s going to be handcuffed from now on. He’s not going anywhere they don’t want him to.”

    The picture of Philip cuffed to his hospital bed cheered her up. “He was going to squash me under the Coke machine, you know.”

    “Well, he did a pretty lousy job of that, didn’t he?”

    She nodded, smiling weakly.

    “Hey Susan, don’t think this isn’t going to show up on your performance review.”

    Mark was being escorted to the ambulance by his own uniformed police officer.

    Susan hugged him. “Thank you so much.” Her voice broke. If he hadn’t been there when the elevator doors opened, Philip might have succeeded.

    “I’m glad I was there.” He laughed. “Well, not really.”

    Mark’s laughter turned to gasps for air as reaction set in. He bent over, bracing his hands on his knees. “Thank God I’m in good shape. I feel like I’m having a heart attack.”

    The paramedics rushed to him.


    Scott Olsen, reporter for KING 5 TV News, had been dubbed Natural Disaster Guy by a wide circle of affectionate fans. They were used to seeing him out on dark stormy nights reporting on snow, floods, or high winds. Something about his boyish good looks made little old ladies write in and beg the station to let him come in out of the rain.

    Tonight Olsen wore only a light jacket with the KING 5 logo, and the wind hardly ruffled his hair. He stood outside the brick office building in Redmond on solid, dry ground and reported that the police were wrapping up their last sweep through the offices of a local software company.

    “Yesterday, two current employees and one former employee were taken into custody by the Redmond Police for questioning in the death of Rebecca Cafferty. She died here on March second in what was officially deemed an accident. It is not clear yet how these events are connected, or if the Cafferty case is being reopened as a murder. Stay tuned to KING 5 for the latest developments.”

    He had reached the scene twenty minutes ago, just before Susan was driven away in the back of a police cruiser to Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland. His cameraman got a great shot of her pale, bruised face as they left the parking lot.

    That’s the video clip they played on the morning news.

    CNN picked up the story once the IPO angle came out.

    Susan stood open mouthed, staring up at the wall-mounted TV as she saw herself huddled in the back of a police car. Of course, they’d caught the side of her face Philip had hit. She didn’t need to look in the mirror again to see that she had developed a heck of a black eye. The nurse downstairs in the emergency room had given her an ice pack for the swelling.

    She was going to have to call her mother in Florida to tell her she was okay. Susan looked around for her purse before remembering that she’d left it, and her cell phone, in the lab at work when Philip had dragged her out into the hallway--

    Nope. She wasn’t going to think about that anymore today.

    A payphone hung on the back wall of the cardiac unit’s waiting room. She headed for it, explaining to the young policewoman sitting quietly by the door, “I can’t let my mother see this on TV without warning her.”

    The officer smiled. She’d loosened up a bit in the four hours or so they’d been together.

    Susan used her calling card number, which she had memorized. The phone rang four times before her mother picked up. Her “Hello?” sounded cheerful and a little out of breath. Susan reminded herself that the East Coast was three hours ahead of her.

    “Hi, Mom. Are you watching the news?”

    “Suzy? No, sweetie, should I be? I was out in the yard with that nice Mr. Boucher.”

    Now was not the time to hear about her widowed mother’s love life. “Listen, Mom. There’s been a little trouble at my new company.”

    “Oh, sweetie, not again.” The reproach in her voice triggered a familiar flash of exasperation in Susan. She had to be referring to Susan’s disastrous breakup with Jack.

    “Mom! That’s not what I mean.” Susan lowered her voice. “A couple of the engineers killed a writer, and I helped the police figure it out.”

    “Are you okay, honey? Did you get hurt?”

    Susan looked at the sling holding her right arm immobile. “I’m fine, Mom. The media is making a big deal out of the story because we were about to go public. No matter what you hear on the news, don’t worry about me.”

    Her mother clicked her tongue. “Engineers can be wild and unpredictable.”

    Susan had never thought of her father that way. “I guess so, Mom. I’ll call you later, okay?”

    “All right, Suzy.”

    She hung up, feeling drained. Sometimes she was glad her mother was three thousand miles away.

    A tiny woman in blue jeans and a Woodland Park Zoo sweatshirt peeked into the waiting room. “Susan Miles?”

    She had to be Mark’s wife; the nurse had promised to tell her that Susan was waiting to see her. “Mrs. Eastman?”

    “Call me Sarah.” She was smiling, but she looked worried.

    “How’s Mark?” Susan’s breath caught in her chest. This was what she had been waiting for. She couldn’t leave until she knew Mark was okay, but the hospital staff wouldn’t let her see him.

    “They say he’ll be fine. We’re lucky that he’s so physically fit.”

    “I’m so sorry this happened.” Susan’s eyes filled with tears, and she leaned over to hug Sarah with her one good arm.

    Sarah patted her back. “No, Susan, we should thank you. The doctors say he was heading for a massive, drop-dead kind of heart attack anyway, just like his father. His arteries are a mess! Having a little heart attack right there in front of an ambulance probably saved his life.”

    Relief washed over Susan. She wiped away her tears, and then a huge yawn caught her by surprise.

    Sarah squeezed her shoulder. “You’re beat. Go home. Don’t worry about Mark.”


    Chapter 27


    The policewoman drove Susan home, reminding her that the detectives wanted to see her at the Redmond Police Station late in the afternoon. Maybe at that time, she could get her purse back.

    Susan climbed out of the car and shut the door. None of the neighbors were out on their lawns, thank God. Susan trudged up the stairs to the back door. The extra key had better be on top of the porch light, or else she was going to drop onto a lawn chair and sleep on the deck.

    The back door was open. The kitchen table was littered with dirty dishes, and the whole room was filled with the mouth-watering smells of eggs, bacon, and coffee. Steph and Dave were standing in front of the tiny TV on the counter, watching CNN. They hadn’t heard her come in.

    Tears threatened to blur her vision. Stephanie had always been there for her, and now she had Dave to lean on, too.

    “Hey, you guys,” she said weakly.

    “Susan!” They both spun toward her. Steph leapt across the room and hugged her, crushing her right arm.


    Steph jumped back, wringing her hands in the apron wrapped around her waist. “Is it broken?”

    She shook her head. “It’s my shoulder. Something about ligaments… You know, I can’t remember what exactly the doctor said.”

    Dave stepped in and wrapped his arms around her without putting pressure on her injured shoulder. His warmth and scent enveloped her. Susan let herself lean on him. She felt him kiss her temple. His breath feathered across her skin as he murmured, “Thank God you’re okay. I thought I was going to go crazy with worry.”

    He gently urged her into a chair at the kitchen table. It felt wonderful to finally sit down. The stairs must have taken more out of her than she’d thought. Dave dragged a chair next to her and sat down, keeping a hand on her good arm. He was probably afraid she was going to tip over.

    “I saw you on the coffee cam when you grabbed the knife. I panicked. I called 911 and drove to work, but they had the area cordoned off. When I tried to explain who I was, they took me into custody.”

    She felt a surge of protectiveness for him. “They arrested you?”

    “No. They made me run through the whole story a couple of times. It’s a good think we talked to Bender on Sunday because he vouched for me. I got out about two hours ago.”

    Something hard dug into her thigh, and Susan reached into her pocket to see what it was. She pulled out a prescription bottle and looked at it. That’s right, the doctor had given her painkillers.

    Dave leaned closer to read the label. “That stuff is pretty potent.”

    “I’m supposed to take one before I go to bed.” Susan yawned. “The emergency room doctor insisted that the police release me so I could come home and sleep, but I have to go down to the station at five.”

    Steph put a plate of fried eggs in front of Susan. “You should eat something first.”

    Susan picked up the fork awkwardly with her left hand. Her stomach growled. The first bite was so delicious, she didn’t care that she dripped egg yolk onto her cashmere sweater.

    Steph refilled Dave’s coffee cup and gave Susan a glass of orange juice. It looked like the two of them had been sitting here all morning, eating, watching the news, and waiting for her to come home. The small TV on the counter was tuned to CNN, but the sound had been muted.

    “Where are Roger and Chris? How did you guys get in here?”

    Steph and Dave looked at each other guiltily. Steph shrugged. “We used the hidden key. I guess the guys had already left for work.”

    Dave picked up the story. “We figured you were going to have to come home eventually, and we both wanted to be here.”

    “Well, I’m really glad you’re here.” Susan gave up on the fork and used her toast to mop up the rest of her eggs. She tried to ignore the way the two of them were staring at her. She must look awful with her black eye and filthy clothes. She hoped she didn’t smell bad. She had been in this outfit for about twenty four hours.

    Dave settled his hand lightly on her back, rubbing his palm in slow circles. “Can you tell us what happened? The police wouldn’t tell me anything.”

    Susan cleared her throat. “You were right. It was Philip Corbin. He was behind everything.”

    Dave looked stunned. “But why?”

    She told him that Philip had killed his MIT classmate, Ron Haverton, for the first version of Activity Tracker. “Everything was fine for a couple of years, and then Rebecca found those disks. She was sick of bar code projects. She must have told Philip if he didn’t get her onto the Activity Tracker project, she’d tell everyone that he hadn’t really written the software. But I bet she had no idea Ron was actually dead.”

    “She wouldn’t have tried to contact him?” Steph asked.

    He sighed. “She wasn’t that good about chasing down every last detail.”

    Susan nodded, surprised that he could finally say something negative about the woman. She put her hand on his arm. “The important thing is, Philip assigned her to Activity Tracker months before the company sent her to treatment.”

    “She was still drinking then.” Dave sounded relieved. “That must have been the ‘arm twisting’ Eileen told us about.”

    Susan nodded. “I don’t think she blackmailed anyone after she started going to AA meetings. Philip said he made her publish those price tags in her book. She had no idea what they were. Then he told Tom, Brian and Ken that she was blackmailing them. He said if they got her high, he would be able to fire her. Instead, he pushed her down the stairs.”

    Steph shook her head. “What the hell were those guys thinking?”

    Dave frowned. “They weren’t thinking. That’s the problem.”

    Susan had seen enough Law and Order episodes on TV to know the difference between murder and manslaughter. If the guys helped the police nail Philip, they’d probably get lighter sentences.

    “So, what was the scariest thing that happened last night?” Steph sounded as though she was back on the high school newspaper, interviewing someone for a front page story.

    Susan didn’t even hesitate. “When I ran out the side door and seven policemen pointed their guns at me. This guy on a megaphone screamed, ‘Drop the knife,’ and I froze. All I could think was, I went through all that to get away from Philip, and now the police are going to shoot me.”

    Dave chuckled. “I know exactly what you mean. A cop pulled a gun on me once. The black depths of that gun barrel scared the hell out of me.”

    They both stared at him, shocked. This was the guy Patty had called The Monk?

    Susan nudged Steph, whose mouth was hanging open. “Can I have some more juice, please?”

    Steph went to the fridge, and Susan changed the subject.

    “Have you heard anything about Mark?”

    Dave looked confused. “Mark who?”

    “Mark Eastman. He was there last night.”

    “Oh, my God, was he in on it, too?”

    Susan laughed. “No! He was working on his novel, and he heard me screaming. He helped me get away from Philip.”

    “I didn’t even know he was writing a novel.”

    Steph snorted as she refilled Susan’s glass. “Dave, almost every tech writer she’s ever introduced me to has a manuscript tucked away in a drawer somewhere.”

    “I don’t.” Susan glared at her. “Anyway, Mark had a heart attack. He’s at Evergreen Hospital in the cardiac unit.”

    “Is he going to be okay?”

    Susan nodded. “I think so.”

    “We’ll have to tell Martha so she can get people at work to sign a card for him.”

    “Are you going to work today, Dave?” She wasn’t sure how she was going to feel when she had to go back there. She certainly wasn’t in any rush to try.

    He shook his head. “The cops aren’t letting anyone into the building yet. We have the day off.”

    “I bet everybody’s at Kinko’s printing their resumes.”

    “I don’t think so. The company will survive. We have a great product and a solid customer base.” He grimaced. “But there’s no way the IPO is going forward.”

    Susan wondered if the scandal would impact Hugh’s plans to spin off a new company with his killer app. She hoped they still wanted her to join them, because she really couldn’t picture herself staying at ESS.

    “Why not?” Steph tapped the newspaper. “This kind of exposure might be good for you guys. You have to admit, a lot more people know about ESS today than they did yesterday.”

    Susan looked at Dave and shrugged. “She might have a point.” A huge yawn made her eyes water.

    “You should go to bed,” Steph said.

    Susan nodded, overwhelmed by exhaustion. She let Steph usher her out of the kitchen. A question nagged at her, and she paused in the doorway. “Dave, when I talk to the police later, is it okay to tell them you and Rebecca went to AA together?”

    He nodded. “Yeah, tell the cops everything. I did. Just don’t mention AA if you talk to any reporters. I’m supposed to maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”

    He sounded like he was reciting something. She nodded. Someday she’d understand all this AA stuff. She started to turn away.

    “Susan?” He crossed the room in two long strides and wrapped his arms around her again as if he’d never let go. He pressed his cheek to the top of her head, and Susan felt herself melting into him.

    His words were slightly muffled by her hair. “I’m really sorry I wasn’t there to help you.”

    She slid her good arm around him and rubbed his back. “That’s okay, Dave. You can be there next time.”



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