Authors: Lisa Lutz
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For Ellen Clair Lamb
an’t sleep. Again. The final notice for the electricity bill came today. I shredded
it, paid the bill out of pocket, and then shook down a delinquent client by reminding
him that company policy is to tell a cheating spouse about an investigation when payment
is past due three months. It’s never been policy before, but I’m warming up to it.
A fed came to visit today. Bledsoe is his name. Agent Bledsoe. B-l-e-d-s-o-e. He knows
about the money. If he has the evidence, I think we could lose the business. Thirty
years down the drain because somebody wasn’t paying attention. Embezzlement. Of all
the stupid things that could take us down. It isn’t even enough money to save us.
Some days I wish I weren’t the only one doing the fixing. I feel like I’m playing
a solo game of toy soldiers with just a few pieces out of my control. Some days I
really believe there might be something left to salvage if we know when to call it
Some days I think that this just might be the end.
Six Weeks Earlier
To All Spellman Employees:
Pants are mandatory.
Footwear is encouraged.
hree lazy knocks landed on the door.
“It’s open!” I said as I’d been saying for the past three months. I leaned back in
my new leather swivel chair. It was less comfortable than you’d expect, but I wasn’t
My father entered the Spellman offices carrying a bowl of oatmeal, topped with a few
raisins, walnuts, and honey. I don’t have a problem with people eating at work, but
I did take issue with his attire—boxer shorts, a wife-beater (the likes of which he
hadn’t owned until he started wearing his skivvies into the office), and a cardigan
that had been feasted on by a hungry moth. I foolishly thought that lowering the thermostat
would encourage my father to put on slacks. Live and learn.
The Spellman offices are located on the first floor of my parents’ house at 1799 Clay
Street in San Francisco, California, a three-story Victorian sitting on the outskirts
of Nob Hill. A Realtor would tell you that the house has “good bones”—three floors,
four bedrooms, three baths—but everything needs to be updated and the exterior demands
a paint job so badly that some of the neighbors have taken to writing
on our dusty windows. Even a few “anonymous” handwritten letters have arrived from
, but since Dr. Alexander has sent other handwritten missives in the past, his anonymity
was lost. Point is, my parents have a nice house in a nice neighborhood that looks
like crap from the outside and is not so hot from the inside, and not enough money
to do anything about it. I remember the blue trim on the window frames from when I
was a child, but I’m not entirely certain that I’d know it was blue now since it’s
almost gone and the thirty-year-old lead-loaded green paint beneath it is what ultimately
shines through. Those now-retired painters must have been really good.
The office itself is a fourteen-by-twenty-foot room with an ancient steel desk marking
each of the four corners. The fifth desk is parked between the two desks with a window
view. Perhaps “view” is an overstatement. We look out onto our neighbor’s concrete
wall and have a slight glimpse into Mr. Peabody’s living room, where he sits most
of the day, watching television. There’s nothing to recommend the décor of the office.
The white walls are covered with bulletin boards so tacked over with postcards, notes,
memos, cartoons, they resemble the layering of a bird’s feathers. The collage of paperwork
hasn’t been stripped in years. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if an archeological
dig produced data from as far back as 1986. It’s not pretty, but you get used to it
after a while. The only thing that begs for change is the beige shag carpet, which
is so worn down you can slip on it in footwear without treads.
As for my father’s extreme casual wear, it would have made sense that my parents might
find the home/workspace divide difficult to navigate, but they’d been navigating it
just fine for more than twenty years. These wardrobe shenanigans were purely for my
“What’s on the agenda today?” Dad said through a mouthful of steel-cut
oats. He shook his computer mouse, rousing his monitor from slumber, and commenced
his workday with his new morning ritual: a two-hour game of Plants vs. Zombies.
“Mr. Slayter will be here in an hour, Dad.”
“Should I have made extra oatmeal for him?” Dad asked as he planted a row of flowers
and a peashooter. I would have used the spud bomb and taken the extra sunlight. But
Dad seemed to be doing fine on his own.
“I think Slayter would prefer pants over oatmeal.”
“You can’t eat pants,” Dad said.
The pants conversation would have continued indefinitely if my mother hadn’t dipped
her head into the doorway and said, “Everybody decent?”
“No, Mom, everybody is not decent,” I said.
Then Mom entered, indecently. While less skin was exposed, her sartorial choice was
perhaps even more perplexing. Her hair, coiled in plastic curlers, was imprisoned
in a net that she must have stolen from Grammy Spellman. She wore a housecoat pockmarked
with daisies and pink fluffy slippers on her feet. I had not seen this outfit before,
and were we at a Halloween party, I might have found it mildly amusing. My mother,
at sixty, is one of those classic beauties, all neck and cheekbones, sharp lines that
hide her wrinkles from a distance. She still gets whistles from construction workers
from three stories up. With her long bottled auburn hair flowing behind her, a carnival
guesser wouldn’t come within a decade of her birth date. Although today, in curlers,
she was looking more like her true age.
“Mom, those curlers must have taken you hours.”
“You have no idea,” she said, easing into her chair, spent from the chore. I would
bet my entire share of the company that Mom hadn’t used curlers since her senior prom.
We’d never had a dress code before all the trouble began
and it was foolish of me to think that a memo posted on bulletin boards scattered
throughout the house would have any impact. But I think it’s important to
note that the dress code was perhaps one of the least ambitious dress codes that ever
existed in an office setting.
And to further illustrate my laissez-faire management protocol, I even instituted
pajama Fridays (so long as a client meeting was not on the books). The next Friday
Mom showed up in a muumuu and a turban, resembling Gloria Swanson in
, and Dad slipped on his swim trunks and a wool scarf (I was still keeping the thermostat
low, stupidly certain of an auspicious result).
For more than three months I had been president and primary owner of Spellman Investigations,
and I can say with complete certainty that I had more power in this office as an underling.
My title, it seemed, was purely decorative. I was captain of an unfashionable and
Edward Slayter, the man responsible for my position at my family’s firm—and for close
to 20 percent of Spellman Investigations’ income—was coming in for a ten o’clock meeting.
I had to get my parents either out of the office or into suitable clothing in less
than twenty minutes.
Just then Demetrius entered in a tweed coat and a bow tie. While I appreciated the
effort he put into his attire, I had to wonder whether this was his own form of self-expression
or an act of mild derision.
“Demetrius, you look great. I guess you saw the memo.”
“It was hard to miss,” D said.
“That was the point,” I said, glaring at my parents. Twenty-five posters on the interior
and exterior of the house. If they opened the refrigerator, used the restroom, opened
their desk drawers, or took a nap,
they couldn’t have missed it. “Why are you rocking the bow tie, D? This is new.”
“I’m going to San Quentin this afternoon to interview an inmate for Maggie on a potential
Maggie is my sister-in-law, married to my brother David. She is a defense attorney
who devotes 25 percent of her practice to pro bono wrongful-incarceration cases. Demetrius,
having once benefited from Maggie’s pro bono work, regularly assists her with those
cases. Because we
believe in the work that Maggie is doing, we help out when time allows, and even when
time doesn’t allow. I’d like to think that if I were in prison for a crime I didn’t
commit, someone would be trying to get me the hell out of there.
“That’s great. Still doesn’t explain the bow tie.”
“I’m not wearing a slipknot in a maximum-security prison.”
“Excellent point. Speaking of nooses,” I said, turning to my parents. The clock was
ticking. “What will it take to get you to change into real clothes and lose the hair
“These curlers took
hours,” Mom said.
I really couldn’t have my first Slayter/unit meeting under these circumstances.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you go back to bed?”
“I’m hungry,” Dad said.
I turned to D, the de facto chef, for assistance.
“I’ll make some pancakes and bring them up,” he said.
Mom and Dad filed out of the office.
“See you tomorrow,” Mom said.
I wish I could say that this was an unusual workday, but that was not the case. I
wish I could say this sort of negotiation was uncommon; also not true. The worst part:
I had to consider this a win.
It happens all the time. One company is struggling and another company buys that company,
and it thrives. Or one company puts itself up for sale and accepts the best offer.
Or in a smaller, family-run company, it can go like this: One member of the family-owned
company buys (through a wealthy proxy) the shares of her two siblings and becomes
the primary shareholder of the company, in essence the owner, blindsiding the previous
owners, who happen to be her parents. This isn’t the first time in the history of
family-owned businesses that there has been conflict among the filial ranks. Although
one could argue that our conflict was strangely unique.
But I’m already getting ahead of myself, so please indulge me briefly for a quick
refresher on all things Spellman.
I’ll start with a name. Mine. Isabel Spellman. I’m thirty-five, single, and I live
in my brother’s basement apartment. If I were a man, you’d assume there was something
wrong with me, like a porn or video game addiction or some kind of maladaptive social
disorder. But I’m a woman, and so automatically the response is pity. Let’s remember
something here: I am the president, CEO, and probably CFO
of Spellman Investigations Inc., a relatively successful private investigative firm
in the great metropolis of San Francisco. I am the middle child of Albert and Olivia
Spellman, the ill-dressed people you met three and four pages ago. There are other
things that you’ll need to know eventually, like I have an older brother, David (an
occasional lawyer and full-time father to his daughter, Sydney); a sister-in-law,
Maggie, the defense attorney I just mentioned; and a much younger sister, Rae, twenty-two,
a recent graduate from UC Berkeley, which makes me the only Spellman spawn without
a college degree. But, hey, who owns this sinking ship? As for Rae, it would be difficult
to reduce her essence to a few sentences, so I’ll save her for later and leave the
essence-reducing to you. I also have a grandmother who lives within walking distance.
You’ll meet her soon enough. There’s no point in rushing that introduction.