Chapter 1 — The Woman in Yellow
The lady didn’t see Anmol’s ice-cream truck coming. She didn’t even flinch at his rumbling sound system, which was blasting rap music that could be heard all over South Park, if not all over San Francisco’s South of Market District. She didn’t hear him yell as she crossed his path, “Ice cream! Fruit cream! Soy cream! Yo!”
Nor did she listen when Harold and I put down our beer bottles and shouted, in unison, “Look out!”
“Baby!” Anmol yelled. “Get a move on!”
The woman held herself in tight, as if she were in a bubble. She didn’t seem to know how to act in our neighborhood, so she froze up. For starters, she was driving a Jag, and her bob haircut was almost as black and as sleek as her car. Tailored and tidy, this classy sister was unlike the rainbow-haired tech geeks who dominated our part of San Francisco. She was one of those people who looked intelligent without seeming to have any skills whatsoever, except maybe on the tennis court.
She was clad in a beautiful, light, lemony-shaded shift and matching short jacket that just barely prevented her from breaking the cardinal fashion rule that one does not wear white after Labor Day. She had on glimmering black Olsen Twin sunglasses that blocked a third of her face, but the skin that was visible was creamy and perfect, even if it did seem just a shade too taut. I thought of how my mother’s face looked after she had her first face lift and wondered if they went to the same doctor.
Harold leaned over and whispered, “Oooh! Oooh! I’ll be your backup. I’ll pretend to read.” He stuck his hand in his cheese nibbles, and then he stuck his nose in the Adlai Stevenson biography was reading. He got so excited when I got new clients that I wondered what he’d do during retirement without me.
Anmol leaned his turbaned head out of his truck to get a better look at the woman in yellow. “Damn!” he yelled, “If you weren’t so fine, I would be mad right about now!” Then he backed up and parked the truck as hipster computer programmers promptly sprang out of South Park’s live-work spaces, ready to relive their youth through Drumsticks and popsicles.
When Anmol’s ice-cream truck paused for customers, the woman in yellow continued to float across the narrow street toward me and Harold. Although she never once acknowledged Anmol, she raised an eyebrow at the sight of the two of us. You don’t see teams like me and Harold all that often: a young redhead like me and an old man lounging in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, both of us drinking Heinekens in the early afternoon. Neither one of us liked to wait until happy hour.
“I’m looking for Ms. Parker,” the woman said.
“You’re looking at her,” I replied. I finished what was left of my beer and smiled.
Pulling her chin in ever so slightly, the woman stammered, “I thought you would be … older.”
I figured what she really wanted to say was “cleaner,” but I wasn’t exactly dressed professionally. No private investigator dresses well. The other ones I knew were schleppy dudes who favored Hawaiian shirts. However, that day was one of my good ones, as I was wearing a polka-dot secretary shirt and jeans I picked up at a thrift store in Berkeley.
As she was sizing me up, I was already returning the favor. I quickly processed the woman’s car, outfit, and manner of walking. Although you wouldn’t have known it to look at me, I grew up with money, thanks to my father’s incredible knack for convincing people to pay big money for organic produce and imported European sweets. I didn’t fit in Dad’s world, though. I played music on the side, and I snooped on people for a living, so I had minimal access to Daddy’s pocketbook. I knew how the higher rungs of society worked, but it didn’t belong to me, even if I was related to it. I liked to say that I could read the language of rich, but I preferred not to speak it.
Now, this woman spoke the language of rich fluently. She might have known some words I didn’t. Watching her impeccable posture, I imagined the woman floating through the world on a cushion of inherited wealth. Maybe she got dirty once or twice if she had a pony, like a lot of those girls I grew up with back on Cape Cod. But the woman in yellow sure didn’t look like the type to muck a stall.
Harold, my landlord and spiritual advisor, tried valiantly to be more interested in his thick volume about the life of a perennial presidential candidate. But he was already radiating dislike toward my potential client. I knew he couldn’t help it. He’d been raised not to trust anyone who looked like they never had a real job. One time, when I confessed to Harold that my own family had been in the Social Register, Harold begged me not to repeat it again because he might have to lecture me for it. He went as far as to clap his hands over his ears.
The woman in yellow summoned the courage to approach me, held out her right hand, and declared, “Hello, Miss Parker. My name is Sabrina Norton Buckner.” Sabrina darted a quick, dismissive glance at Harold, who responded by swigging from his Heineken. “I need to speak with you -” she tossed a second pointed glance at Harold “-privately.”
I did not like the way Sabrina looked at Harold and had half a mind to tell her to take her business elsewhere. You work with me, and you have to deal with Harold. He sits out in his lawn chair every day, and he sees all my clients coming and going. On numerous occasions, he has steered me away from those who look like trouble or won’t pay up.
Then again, someone like Sabrina was bound to pay well. Women who dressed like that and who sported good face lifts were often involved in divorce cases, and they could always afford my rate because they were using their ex-husband’s money. I decided to take a chance. “Well,” I told her, “Let’s head upstairs so my good friend Harold—this is Harold Cho, by the way, my landlord—can read in peace.”
Harold stood and extended a damp, cheesy hand toward Sabrina, saying, “Pleasure to have your formal introduction.” Sabrina, who possessed a perfect boarding-school sheen of manners, had no choice but to accept the handshake, but, when it was over, she held her hand out to her side as if she might catch plague. Harold grinned as he sat down.
As we headed for my door, Anmol finished his sales and rang his bell, advising Sabrina, “Open your eyes, baby! Next truck might not stop!” Then he threw the rap music on full blast, tossed me a free Drumstick, winked, and rolled on.
“Is your neighborhood always like this?” she asked.
“Yes,” I told her, taking out my keys. “But you know what they say: Try it, you might like it.”
She looked nervous, but she still followed me through the entrance and up to my office.