I’m not terrifically impressed by high-tech geniuses. For one thing, there are so many of them. In San Francisco, it’s pretty much impossible to drop by your local Tully’s for a Latte Macchiato without bumping into a hypercaffeinated computer whiz who thinks he’s just a hundred lines of code away from changing the world as we know it.
So when my husband Jack told me we were invited to lunch with Morgan Stokes, the Cappo di tutti cappi of geekdom, I was underwhelmed. And maybe a little whiny.
“Jaaaack,” I groaned. “Do we have to?”
“You’re the only woman I’ve ever met who can give my name four syllables.” Which didn’t exactly answer my question, but since he said it while stepping out of a steamy shower wearing nothing but an engaging frown I sort of lost track of what we’d been talking about.
Jack looks good when he’s wet. But then, Jack always looks good.
He’s in his late thirties, which is much older than me—I’m only in my mid-thirties—and he has the sort of tall, dark-eyed, chiseled-jaw stuff that reminds me of Gregory Peck in his prime. A sarcastic, sometimes maddeningly secretive Gregory Peck, but my very own classic leading man, nevertheless.
We’d only been married seven months, and we’d barely known each other six weeks before the wedding. So it was probably perfectly natural that my husband could still make me abandon all my plans for the day just by reaching for a towel.
I got to the towel rack first. “I don’t think you’ll be needing that.”
“Is your plan to make us late for lunch?” he asked, dripping. “With any luck, we’ll be late for dinner.”
He rewarded me with one of those grins that make me glad I’d gotten over a lifetime of commitment issues and said “I do” to the man.
# # #
A while later I opened my eyes and looked at the clock.
Damn. We still had time to haul ourselves out of bed and make the lunch appointment.
I reached over and poked Jack in the arm. “Jack, you can’t take a job with this guy.”
“Who said I was going to take a job?” He adopted a tone of wounded innocence.
I didn’t buy it for a second.
“We said we’d go away as soon as the last play of the season closed,” I reminded him.
“We did say that,” he agreed. “That was a full four days ago!”
“But Charley.” He kissed me on the nose. “We just got here.”
He had a point. We’d moved in to the house exactly two weeks ago, on New Year’s Day. I use the term “moved in” loosely, since the only furniture we possessed was the massive bed we currently occupied and a battered desk lamp that Jack had been dragging around the world since his college days.
Finding the perfect house had been a harrowing experience. The endless decisions involved in the process had been enough to make me stay happily in a hotel suite for the rest of my life. What neighborhood? What style? What size? What the hell did I know about real estate?
But thanks to Jack’s persistence and a genius realtor, we’d found the perfect place. It was made of white stone, with classical, or maybe Edwardian, or possibly Georgian architecture. I didn’t know how to label it, but I loved the high arched windows and the little balcony over the front door. And the Pacific Heights location meant it had postcard-worthy views of the San Francisco Bay.
After all the long hours I’d been putting in at the Rep, the non-profit theatre company I funded and managed, I hadn’t been in a rush to take on the job of settling into the big empty house. Settling has never really been my strong suit. And now that the last play of the season had just closed after a surprisingly successful run, I felt I was due for a honeymoon.
It was either that or go furniture shopping.
“Jack.” I sat up in bed and looked around for my clothes. What had I been wearing? I wrapped the sheet around myself and followed him into his closet. “Sweetie, remember all our plans? Remember Maui? Remember scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef? Remember a little cottage in the South of France? Remember…” I could barely remember all the things we’d talked about.
“Remember Tuscany!” I shouted at his retreating back. “Sure I remember, Charley. All those trips sound great.” He was moving swiftly to the hallway, and I knew I’d never keep up with him on the stairs while still wound up in my sheet. Luckily, he’s a gentleman, and he waited at the door with an expression of amused lechery until I flung on a robe. Then, perfectly reasonably, he continued. “If you just tell me when and where you want to go, we’ll go. But—” he cut off my anticipated whoop of victory—“I don’t think we’re going anywhere before lunchtime, so we might as well meet with Morgan Stokes.”
# # #
As we pulled up outside One Market, I consoled myself with the thought that at least we’d have a fabulous meal. The restaurant was a power dining establishment owned and operated by one of San Francisco’s most celebrated celebrity chefs, and its dessert menu contained a grown-up version of a banana split—involving hazelnut ice cream and a crunchy caramelized effect—that could induce grown women to chuck their diets and live for the moment.
Another consolation was that I’d taken the event as an opportunity to debut a new cashmere sweater dress that clung in just the right places and, mercifully, nowhere else. The jewel-red color worked well with my darkish hair and winter-pale skin, and a fabulous pair of Dior stiletto-heeled boots brought me almost eye-level with Jack—optimum kissing range, which could come in handy after lunch.
After we were seated and assured that Italian fizzy water was on its way, I resumed my line of questioning.
“So if he isn’t going to offer you a job, why are we talking to this dweeb anyway?”
Jack looked momentarily pained, probably because the dweeb in question ran one of the most successful software companies in the world. “He wants to hire the firm to look into something at his company.”
The firm, unimaginatively named MJC (Mike and Jack’s Company), was the computer security startup Jack had formed with his former Navy buddy, Mike Papas, soon after we’d gotten married and come back to the Bay Area.
We’d met while we were both living in London. Me, studying with a British theatrical company, and Jack, doing heaven-knows- what on behalf of the United States Navy. He’d claimed to be a meteorologist, but since you have no way of knowing when a weatherman is making things up, that was a little hard to verify.
Jack’s past was something of a mystery.
And that’s something of an understatement.
Now I batted my eyes at him. “If Morgan Stokes is such a smarty-pants, what does he need with you two?”
“Because a smarty-pants knows when to call for reinforcements,” he batted back at me as the water and menus arrived. “Right.” I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “And I’m sure the only interest this guy has in you is your stellar ability to analyze computer data.”
Jack was impervious to suggestion. “That’s Mike’s stellar ability. I just help with the heavy lifting.”
“Right,” I said again.
I had extremely good reason to believe that Jack had spent his military career as an undercover operative working clandestinely for Naval Intelligence, where he had picked up some very impressive skills. But Jack still stuck to the meteorologist story. This despite all evidence—in the form of his behavior when faced with a maniacal killer weaving an elaborate plot of revenge in the weeks following our marriage—to the contrary.
In public, I humored him. Privately, I held the belief that Jack, his friend Mike, and a third partner, Gordon, had been the Navy’s covert-operations dream team. A real smarty-pants would be interested in MJC for those talents.
Reading my mind, or at least part of it, Jack asked, “How’s Gordon doing with the restaurant?”
“He’s found the place he wants,” I said. “It’s on Union Street. We’ll be able to walk to it.” Although walking back home, uphill, was another story.
“That’s handy. How’s Harry taking it?” I grimaced. “Not well.”
I’d met Gordon when he’d taken a job as private chef to my Uncle Harry, something Jack had arranged so his colleague could quietly keep a watchful eye on my family. I’m the first to admit that my uncle, a grown-up delinquent who takes both fine living and personal security to alarming extremes, generally needs some watching.
Gordon had immediately become indispensable to Harry. He had an almost-miraculous knack of showing up exactly when you wanted him with exactly what you needed—whether that was a dry martini or a surgical kit.
Harry, never a man to keep his feelings hidden, was still working through the grieving process over Gordon’s defection. He’d reached the denial stage, believing Gordon’s venture would fail and he’d come back to Harry’s Hillsborough mansion eventually, bringing the secret of the perfect Bloody Mary with him.
But anyone who’d tasted Gordon’s salmon en croute knew his restaurant wasn’t going to fail.
“Gordon thinks the place only needs some minor renovations and a new look,” I said. “He asked me if I know any good interior designers.”
Jack may have chuckled, but he turned it into a throat- clearing so smoothly that I wasn’t sure. He raised his eyebrows innocently, not bringing up the fact that a very large, very empty house was waiting for me to decorate it.
“Just because I’ve only had the painters slap on one coat of Beach Sand semi-gloss so far doesn’t mean I’m not going to turn the house into a showplace,” I answered his unspoken comment.
I was a little touchy on the subject of decorating. I had plenty of ideas for different fabulous looks, but they all seemed to vanish whenever I walked into a furniture store, or—God forbid—one of those home-improvement warehouses.
“Anyway,” I told him. “I’m sure Gordon’s place is going to be great.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Jack grinned. “Even if Harry’s his only customer, he’ll never go out of business.”
It was true. I looked at my watch. “The boy genius is late for lunch.”
“I know.” A flicker of something—worry?—flashed across Jack’s face. “And Stokes has a reputation for fanatical punctuality. I heard when he took over Zakdan he put a thirty-minute limit on all meetings, and if someone wasn’t there exactly on time they were fined.”
I shuddered. “Thank God I never had to have a real job.” Especially one working for Morgan Stokes.
As I was reaching for my glass, a thought struck me. “Why isn’t Mike here?”
“He’s out of town.” Jack punctuated this sentence with a look that said Don’t Ask. “He talked to Stokes over the phone a few days ago and thought I should meet with him.”
“Oh.” I sipped demurely. “So why am I here?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Because my love for you is such that I can’t stand for us to be parted.”
“Yeah, but really. Why am I here?”
Jack grinned. “Because rumors spread faster than Internet viruses in his business, and if Morgan Stokes was seen having lunch with me in some quiet little place it would look like he was interested in acquiring MJC, and that might affect his stock price. But if we’re out in the open in a very public restaurant, and if you’re here…” He looked at me speculatively.
“It only looks like he’s courting an investor,” I finished for him.
“Not just any investor,” Jack pointed out.
So I had been dragged to the world’s most boring luncheon simply because I had—through no fault of my own—a couple zillion dollars.
“I’m your beard,” I said. “I’m your rich beard.”
Jack patted my hand and allowed a twinkle to creep into his eye. “And a lovely beard you are.”
Funny how just when I was completely exasperated, I found myself wanting to rip off Jack’s clothes and have my way with him. But he was spared that indignity by the arrival of a disheveled entrepreneurial genius.
Morgan Stokes stood at the doorway, seemingly unaware of the January chill he was letting in behind him, and I knew it was Morgan Stokes not only because he was wearing a leather bomber jacket with the Zakdan corporate logo over his heart, but because every head in the restaurant turned to look at him.
Jack made eye contact with him, and he came over to the table. I know these digital types have the reputation of living on cold pizza and sleeping under their desks, but this specimen looked particularly bad. Dark circles under the eyes, hair that was genuinely messy, not just fashionably unkempt-looking, and an overall air of twitchy desperation.
He was about 5’6″, with a slight build that wasn’t helped by concave posture. When I’d seen him on TV, he’d always appeared youthful and energetic, more like the eager new intern than the seasoned CEO. But today it looked like he was recovering badly from a well-delivered blow to the gut.
“Morgan Stokes.” He held out a shaky hand.
“Jack Fairfax.” Jack helped the guy into his chair. “This is my wife, Charley.”
Stokes turned to me and, alarmingly, I saw tears in his eyes. “Your wife,” he said faintly.
I was at a loss for words. Could whatever was going on at his company have turned him into this much of a wreck?
“Sorry.” He cleared his throat and made a visible effort to pull himself together as he shrugged off his coat. “I know we scheduled this meeting to talk about the security issue at Zakdan.” He straightened, his voice gaining strength. “But something has happened that takes precedence over everything else.”
Jack flicked a look my way before answering. “If you have to go, we can reschedule.”
“No!” Stokes said loudly. People at surrounding tables didn’t bother to disguise their curiosity. “No,” he repeated, attempting to bring himself under control. “I need to talk to you, but not about Zakdan.”
He took a deep breath.
“It’s my fiancée. She’s been murdered.”