Somewhere in the distance outside the diner
"What? Marlene, I can't understand you. Speak slower!" Damn these creatures were annoying. Calling my cell phone just when Alanna and her pet cop were just getting to the good stories. I better not have missed anything critical. But I do need Marlene.
"Really, why don't we meet tonight and compare notes. That does sound awful."
Yeah, blah, blah, more words. Like I even care? You, Marlene, are being a pain, oops, she's paused too long and I must have missed something. Time to stroke her ego a bit.
"Marlene, what did you say? The phone's breaking up on this end, I missed what you just said. I must be in a bad cell zone. Just meet me at the usual spot. Skip work again today and spend some of that cash pampering yourself. You deserve it. Don't bother calling in! They will just talk you into showing up for work. Screw 'em if they can't handle it. I told you that you are definitely under appreciated there!"
More blah, blah, blah, oh wait; she said something about her damned nosy mom. No, no, we can't have any of that! I should've made Marlene an orphan.
"Marlene, take five hundred out of the dresser and head over to that spa I showed you. It's listed in the book by the phone. If you call your mom she's just going to whine about your spending money. Now wouldn't that be a total drag? After all, she knows you've taken a few days off for a much needed paid vacation so why stress the details. It's not like she really understands you -- that's right -- yes, Marlene I know how much you mean to me. Hey, I think there is a special little package for you in the second dresser drawer."
Damn that girl squeals like a stuck pig, "Uh huh, the tooth fairy left it all for good girls and boys. That's yours. Bye see you later."
Stupid cokehead. That shit will fry your brains in nothing flat. Each to their own, she probably won't make it out of the house once her paranoia kicks in. That's one freaked out lady. But on the plus side -- she'll be too fried to call anyone. Now what to do about Marlene? Hmmm....decisions decisions. First I needed to hear more of what that bitch was going to tell the cop.
Again I felt that odd feeling at the back of my neck. Tilting my head to increase my range of vision, I couldn't see anyone lurking or straight out watching me. I began to tell Michael Stockwell my edited version of what happened to me years ago.
In the past, Los Angeles
After college I started my own business. It was a fairly new concept at the time, combining catering with setting up conferences and luncheons for corporations and private parties. I did all the grunt work and clean up from start to finish. Finding the venue, printing invitations, getting menu approval, hiring of staff and clean up for the events. It now is a fairly commonplace business, but back then it wasn't being done. I found a niche and dove in with everything I had.
It took me hard work to maintain a clientele of noteworthy city officials and the various prominent and influential members of society. From my research I knew that was where the true money was, and college courses had taught me how to work my contracts and finances to please all the parties concerned. That alone was worth the ugly courses in economics and business I worked hard to pass. My courses had pointed out the weak areas in start-up businesses, and I wasn't going to waste my education, so I nailed down the contracts and kept my clients happy, and talked my company up to anyone who'd listen.
Despite my fears and misgivings, I quickly became extremely active within the Los Angeles political and social community. It was soon considered to be quite a coup to have me in charge of any civic affair or social event. I built three locations and had an amazingly huge staff. Naturally I was making more money than I could spend.
After an extremely successful party I was approached by a local matron I'd seen during the previous year or so on the fringe of the meet and greets I'd catered and orchestrated. She was polite and asked me during a lull in activity if I had any investments to fall back on if the climate changed and I was no longer the 'hot ticket'. She started me thinking. Hell, she started me worrying. Naturally I asked whom she used, and was referred to the Smythe, Farrell and Darcy Investment firm.
SFD, as they were called, was a brokerage house with an impressive track record. Even with the recommendation I thoroughly checked SFD out. After all, I didn't want to waste my time or money on a brokerage house with a bad reputation or faulty investment plan. They had the typical aggressive, arrogant brokers with all their 'sure deal' sorts of things. After a few days of interviewing them I found a broker; together we worked out an investment portfolio I could live with and didn't seem too high risk.
Part of it was the broker. Brad Grady was older than many of the brokers I had met. He was all of thirty-five years -- that, I gathered, in brokers' terms was ancient. Brad kept working on my initial investments and went above and beyond what I'd expected. Soon I was able to start up money market accounts and other aspects of investment trades that helped my monies grow. My money was well handled and afforded me a certain level of comfort and security. No longer worrying about my future and whether or not I was going to be in vogue five years later I took some business risks. The resulting financial stability helped my company grow.
Brad became a close friend. He was part of the group of folks I counted on for steady referrals. Soon, I passed his name on to women seeking to invest their profits or just looking to dabble in the market. He'd started it with giving me connections and invitations to events where I was able to access the local competition and in time steal away more business. Not a money type of trade, just the respect of folks who were looking out for their friends. Nowadays this type of networking is fairly typical. Remember this was back in the beginning of the eighties, and not yet commonplace nor expected as it is today.
After a few years went by Brad was introduced to one of my top assistants. Sheryle Harris had been with me since my very first day practically, and proved to be capable of handling most disasters that came our way. Catering businesses naturally have troubles of their own and adding in the new ideas just increased the problems. Sheryle was a fast thinker and proved her worth time and time again. She and Brad hit it right off and began dating seeing each other steadily. Nobody was greatly surprised when they announced their engagement.
Everyone was extremely happy for them.
On a ski trip up to Mammoth they were involved in a fatal car wreck. The highway patrol came upon their wreck the morning following their accident. The evening they'd gone off the slick mountain road there was a record high snowfall. The investigating officers who examined the accident said so much snow had fallen and how they probably had hit a patch of black ice and lost control of their car. They were surprised there hadn't been even more cars off the roads. The incident was just another accidental death common during the winter unfortunately. Their bodies were sent back for burial in Los Angeles.
The funeral was dreadful. But then what funeral isn't? It was one of those rare rainy days. The treacherous weather made it even more dismal. The families decided because of the engagement and how much they loved each other it was appropriate that they would be buried together. Amid a torrential downpour I watched my two friends be buried side by side. There was a large crowd; Brad and Sheryle were popular and they touched many lives. The folks came from all over to pay their respects.
Afterwards there was a gathering for everyone at Sheryle's parents' family home in Pasadena. It wasn't the pricey old family money part of Pasadena but instead the mixed neighborhood with character and style. Most of the mourners gathered to share stories, tears and memories. It was hard on all and I knew the Harris family from happier occasions in the past. Sheryle had been very close to her parents and they knew me fairly well. They accepted my help with the arrangements for the funeral and the wake that followed. Mr. and Mrs. Harris were shocked by the sudden loss of their only child.
It was here that I met Randolph. He approached me in the kitchen. Some of my workers, the ones who didn't know Sheryle, helped serve and organize the food. I was putting together some hors d'oeuvres and coordinating the buffet. In the cramped room, I was checking with my staff and trouble shooting some minor problems when a man walked into the kitchen and asked if there was any more ice. Finding the freezer empty, I sent a waiter out to check the mobile beverage cart I had in the backyard for those outside smoking and commiserating underneath the canopy I'd also provided. He immediately went out to check on the ice. The waiter was smooth and he didn't ask me what to do if there wasn't any outside. I was confident he would simply grab a company van and pick up forty or sixty pounds.
The man lingered once he'd delivered his request for ice. My staff had emptied out into the yard while I automatically put the final touches on a tray of canapés and looked up to find the man staring at me. I continued my garnishing and found he was still there.
"Excuse me, miss?"
"Yes?" Brusquely I answered while still concentrating on arranging the platter just so. The repetitious behavior gave me a hollow comfort while I was achingly missing both Brad and Sheryle. Being somewhat busy helped me push aside the reason I was here.
"Aren't you Alanna Gilliam?"
"Yes." I replied. Subconsciously I had noticed that he'd been a tad nervous approaching me. He looked vaguely familiar, but then so did three quarters of the population in Los Angeles. Considering all the different events I had attended or catered, I met more than a few people.
"Ah, I'm sorry about your loss. I know how devastating this all must be," his voice faded at my deadpan stare.
I continued my work as some of my staff had magically reappeared. Distracted, I handed off the trays and some platters from the fridge while adding a few more sprigs of parsley and basil. My returning employees walked past the man as if he was invisible. The man seemed to be taken back by the disregard and stiffened his spine.
"Well, I don't mean to disturb you. I just thought I'd take the moment to introduce myself." His voice was strong despite his reserved choice of words.
"Yes?" Finally I stopped what I was doing while wiping my hands on a kitchen towel I turned to look at him. He was leaning against a counter, roughly six feet tall and seemed to be in good shape with a clean-shaven appearance coupled with the ash blond hair, light blue eyes and deep tan he personified a California beach boy in his mid-thirties.
Knowing he had caught my eye he grinned slightly while saying, "Excuse me, I'm Randolph Hagen. I knew Brad."
He seemed to momentarily choke up as if with emotion. His eyes glistened with what seemed to be unshed tears.
"Oh, I'm truly sorry," I said while extending my hand. It was refreshing to me to see a man who seemed to express his feelings. I found it fitting since the day had been filled with such tragic overtones.
Randolph grasped my hand in a loose handshake, then continued the shake carrying my hand to his chest. He expressively sighed and bowed his head. I didn't know what to do. Puzzled I gently pulled my hand free.
"Nice meeting you, Mr. Hagen," Quickly I walked out of the kitchen. Naturally he trailed after me.
"Uh, Ms. Gilliam, please, call me Randolph."
"Yes, sure -- Randolph -- if you'd excuse me I need to speak with a few people." I was distracted and promptly forgot the man in the kitchen.