Sometimes, I think I must have the best job in the world. As part of my work, I met a girl a few weeks ago. Not a girl, really. A woman. A truly fascinating woman. Her name is Sarah.
I'm a private investigator for a boutique divorce law firm. It's not as glamorous as it may sound. I do rack up the frequent-flier points, and yes, I went to Las Vegas last Christmas, but it was for work. I was trying to get video of a suspected cheating husband. To a degree, I understood when I spied on him. After all, his wife was a shrew, and he was a typical guy. The young lady he took to his room while his wife finished her shopping did a Tahitian hula/reverse cowgirl thing that I had never seen before.
A lot of my work involves researching hidden assets. Sometimes, I'm looking for real estate holdings or off-shore bank accounts. Sometimes, it's artwork or jewels. Often, I'm at a desk, and when I do go out on field-work, there's no Indiana Jones or Mission Impossible stuff.
The senior partner (known among the staff as The Ice Queen) called me to her office. "Don," she asked, "if I told you I wanted you on a red-eye flight Sunday night, what would it do to your other cases?"
"For how long?"
"I wouldn't normally ask you to do this, but ..."
"Bullshit, Marian," I interrupted. "How long do I have to be away?"
"You have all the budget you need on this one to hire whoever you want to help you. If you get yourself a good forensic accountant, you should be on the plane back home Friday night."
"Some clients will argue, but nobody's world will come to an end if I'm not here for a week," I said. "It's a good thing we love each other."
"Just remember who pays whom, and why. Clean up your loose ends and go home. Pack for a week in Virginia, near DC. A car will pick you up and take you to the airport. Be ready Sunday morning at ten." Marian handed me some file folders and a small bundle of discs, and motioned me away. "Go, before we do something stupid."
My new job was to dig up the dirt on a business. The estranged wife has a large block of shares in her husband's enterprise, and she feels he's siphoning off money, lowering the value of her holdings, which would be beneficial to him when he is ordered to buy her out.
Even though I probably have learned enough over the years to take the exams, I'm not an accountant. This job needed one. From an assignment several years ago, I know a gentleman who is a senior partner in a successful accounting firm in the area. I gave him a call. He agreed to "rent out" his best forensic accountant, a Mrs. Sarah Blevins. Her schedule would be clear late Monday morning.
Her curriculum vitae had me hoping for a dynamic, no-nonsense woman with a sharp mind and a bit of cynicism, all business, and hopefully, a stickler for details. I wanted someone who could find evidence of fiduciary mistakes by the company's own financial people, or signs that the books had been "cooked."
I've teamed with this kind of specialist before. They're often the nerds of the accounting world. Based on the people I had worked with in the past, I anticipated a plain looking woman.
That's not what I saw when she came into the lobby. She was taller than I expected, honey-blond, blue-eyed, and pretty. If she wore make-up, it was subtle. Dressed in a conservative skirt and jacket, she spoke with a soft but confident voice laced with the sweeter parts of a southern drawl. She looked like a woman you could enjoy taking to dinner, or helping with a project she's doing as a Sunday school teacher.
My first impression was to see her in the role of trusted executive secretary or elementary school principal, but this assignment called for more than that. I needed a rabid badger.
She took me to her office to discuss the case. Following her down the hall, I played with the idea of those long legs in a much shorter, tighter skirt, with dressy heels replacing the sensible office shoes she wore. I wondered what her long hair would feel like in my hands.
"You're disappointed, aren't you, Don?" she asked, after she had closed the door and taken her place behind her desk.
"I get that a lot. Being a woman is a handicap in business. At least it seems that way to me," she said.
"I don't look down on women in business, Sarah. I'm not that kind of guy."
"You've read my curriculum vitae, I assume," she said.
"I did, and I was impressed."
"Would you have been as 'impressed' if I were a man? Or did you just think my qualifications were good for a woman?"
"Where is all this coming from?" I asked.
"Look, I know what your employers do. They screw people out of money in divorces. They're very good at it," she said.
"I try not to think of it that way. Are claims exaggerated? Sure. On both sides. Are mistakes made? Yes, unfortunately. We're all human. My job is to make sure that all assets are accounted for, and that my employer's client gets compensation for the value of the couple's shared holdings and for the pain and suffering of a failed marriage."
Sarah got more animated. "Marriage is sacred, as far as I'm concerned. People stand there in front of whatever they consider to be God, and swear an oath to each other. That's one of the things that ticks me off. This country has become all about getting someone else to pay through the nose for your dumb mistakes. In a marriage, unless you're completely stupid, you should have known what you were getting yourself into."
"I'm not completely stupid," I said. "I'm smart enough to have stayed single. Look, if you're not comfortable working with someone who does this for a living, I'm sorry I wasted your time." I stood and turned toward the door.
"Wait!" she cried. "Please. Oh, dammit, I'm not good at this." Suddenly, her bluster was gone. "Won't you sit down?"
I did. I looked at her, waiting for her to continue. She was staring at the screen-saver on her computer monitor, playing absent-mindedly with a wisp of her hair that was draped over her chest. She took a deep breath, and then broke into a weak smile.
"That's probably the worst job I've done introducing myself since I was about twelve," she said. "May I start over?"
I stood up, smiled, and extended my hand, just as I had done before. "Hello, I'm Don Croswell."
She gave me a smirk, stood, and said, "Good to meet you, Don. I'm Sarah Blevins." She laughed as we shook hands. "Please, sit down. Would you like a water?" She swiveled in her chair and got two bottles from her mini-fridge. "I'm a competent accountant. My records prove that. I also have a very good nose for bullshit."
"That's what I need. This guy is hiding something. I'm just not sure where or how."
She said, "When my boss told me about this assignment, I was anxious to work with you because of what you do, not who you work for. You expose liars. You search for the truth. That's what I do, too. Look, Don, I'm sorry, but I'm guilty of a little bit of hero worship here. You look at the whole picture. All I do is give you some financial details."
"If you can give me those details, I'll make sure my employers know exactly how valuable your assistance was. There may be need for your services in the future, if you're willing."
"I have a career with this firm. As I understand it, the boss is basically 'renting' me to you," she said.
"That's right, and I'm not in a position to offer anyone a job anyway, but I've given references before that have gotten a little freelance work for some people. In one way or another, we're all in the information business. Networking is important, and I've got a big address book," I said.
"Let's see if I can help you first," she answered.
"How do you want to start?"
"With lunch. There's a cafe downstairs."
"I saw it," I said. "I'm on an expense account, so my employer is buying. I'll drive."
We walked through the parking garage, Sarah stopping to get an attache case from her minivan. I had parked my rental car out where people were less likely to hit it.
"Oh my," Sarah murmured when I hit the remote locks on the silver Mercedes SLK. "I never rode in one of those."
"I hadn't either. Triple upgrade from the rental car company. That's why I said I'll drive. It's a lot more fun than the car I have at home. Where's a good place to eat?"
During lunch, she told me a bit about herself. "I'm thirty-seven. I have two kids. I had to delay presenting my master's thesis because I went into labor with my daughter two weeks early. I'm a hard worker, Don."
"If we do this, we're going to spend a lot of time together, you know," I said.
"As long as I can get six hours sleep and a shower, I can be on the job. My husband, Tim, will work from home. I've done this before," she said.
I paid the tab, and we walked to the car. When we were on the highway, heading to the factory, I asked, "You're saying you'll work past five o'clock?"
"Don, I may be younger than you, but I'm not naive. I know what it takes to succeed in this business. I'll work as long as necessary to get the job done."
"All work and no play makes Sarah a dull girl," I observed.
"I didn't think it was that obvious," she said.
Great. I must have hit a nerve. I said, "That was rude of me. I was trying to be funny. I was willing to settle for lame, but I didn't mean to be insulting."
"No, no, it's okay. You're right. I do work all the time. Tim keeps telling me I'll be the most successful person in the morgue some day. I've always been like that. It's how I tackled school, even as a little girl. It's the way I managed to make dean's list every semester in college while working full-time and playing Susie Homemaker for my husband.
"When did you get married?" I asked.
"Right after high school. We both worked and went to college at the same time. He got a good job, and I went on for my master's. We even started a family. Somehow, we made it work."
"Like I said before, I'm impressed. Here's our exit." I said nothing more, enjoying the muted music of the car's exhaust, as I tapped the paddle shifter to slow us down.
The owner met us at the door, smiling. "Hi! I'm Bill Owens. Did you have any trouble finding the place?" He gave us the grand tour, treating us like we were potential investors. After assigning a secretary to run errands for us, he took us to a conference room where we could spread out whatever materials we asked for.
When we had a moment alone, Sarah said, "My bullshit sense started tingling as soon as I saw him."
"Okay, then it's not just me. You think he's too good to be true, too."
"Absolutely. Especially with the creepy vibes I'm getting from him. I'm wearing slacks tomorrow. Loose ones," she chuckled.
We worked until the office staff was leaving, and Owens escorted us out. He locked the front door behind him. "It was nice to meet you, Mr. Croswell, Ms. Blevins. Will I see you in the morning?"
"We'll be here at nine," I said.
"Great. I'm looking forward to it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a dinner date," he said. He hurried off to his car.
Sarah and I got in the Mercedes and watched Owens drive away.
"What do you think so far?" I asked.
"Am I being hyper-sensitive? That guy is a total creep! Just having him look at me made me feel dirty," she said.
"I saw him. He wasn't even trying to be subtle."
"You don't look at me that way. I don't feel like a specimen under a microscope with you."
"Oh, you're bad!" she laughed. "You had me fooled. I thought you were a gentleman."
"I am. I just meant,... well,... I look at you, but I don't drool over you like he did."
Sarah stared at me, a combination of shock and amusement on her pretty face. "But you've checked me out? Is that what you're saying?"
"Well, uh, yeah, I guess. I'm a man. You're a very attractive woman. So yes, I've looked. Don't sue me."
"Look, Sarah, I feel really awkward. I'm digging myself into a hole here. What I'm trying to say is, I see how you work as well as how you look. Is that so bad?"
She was silent for a moment. "No. I guess not. I'm just not used to getting compliments. At least, not on anything but my work."
"That surprises me. I'll bet your husband tells you how nice you look all the time."
"No, that's not what he focuses on."
I started the car. "I guess I should get you back to your office so you can get home."
"Do you want to discuss what we did today, and what we want to accomplish tomorrow?" she asked. "I already told my family I'd be late. Tim will make dinner while the kids do their homework, and he'll come up with something fun to do with them until it's time for bed. We share pretty much all the childcare and household responsibilities. He's Mr. Mom when I do work like this."
"Should we stop for dinner and a drink?" I asked.
"Not a bad idea. Just one drink, though. I do have to drive home at some point."
"I'll have to drive you back to get your car, too, so yes, just one," I agreed. "Mind if I put the top down? Your hair won't blow too much."
She looked up. "It's metal, isn't it?"
"I guess so." I pressed the button that began the transformation.
"Oh, my father would love this thing! He's such a car nut!" she said, in the most animated voice I had heard all day.
"This is the 'play' part of that all-work-and-no-play thing I mentioned." I eased the sleek roadster into traffic, and soon we were on the highway.
"Where are you staying?" she asked, wisps of her honey locks dancing in the breeze.
"There," I said, pointing to a sign advertising my hotel.
"Do they serve food in their bar?"
"Sandwiches and salads. We can sit and talk."
"Sounds good," she said.
I parked the car, and we walked into the hotel lounge. The place was almost deserted, and the music was quiet enough for conversation. We found a small table, got our menus, and placed our order.
"I just had an alarming thought," Sarah said, after the waitress brought our drinks.
"Yes. What is a nice housewife like me doing here with another man?"
"Is that what this is, in your mind?" I asked. "To me, it's business associates grabbing dinner, unwinding and having a strategy session."
"It is, of course," she said, "but how does it look?"
"Who cares? People do this all the time. You're putting yourself in the exact niche that brought on your little show in your office this morning. You know that, don't you?"
She sighed, looking down at the table. Then she raised her eyes to mine. "You're right. I try so hard to be one of the guys in the office or when I'm out in the field, but sometimes I just can't do it."
"Why can't you be Sarah Blevins?"
"I don't know," she said, almost to herself. She sipped her drink in silence.
I asked, "What are your overall thoughts on what we saw today? You mentioned your bullshit sense as soon as we walked in there, and you seemed like you were onto some stuff right away."
"You painted a pretty accurate picture of what to expect, although you failed to mention what a smarmy little creep Owens is."
"We're going to bring him down if there's anything at all wrong," I said. "We're playing detective here."
"You make this sound so clandestine," she grinned.
"Only in my Walter Mitty fantasies. Seriously, though, do you agree that there is something funny about those books?"
"I have some questions," she said. "A lot of them, in fact."
"Good. Now, off business for a minute. Who is Sarah Blevins? What makes you tick?"
"Honestly? Well, there's Sarah, the hard-working forensic accountant. That's who you saw today. There's Sarah, the wife and mother. I can bore you to tears with stories about potty training and parent-teacher conferences. I can tell you how to get grass stains out of little league uniforms and bubble gum out of long hair, and at least five great salsa recipes."
The waitress brought our dinners. When she was gone, I asked, "What about Sarah, the person?"
"Hmmm. Well, I'm the only child of two salt-of-the-earth working-class parents. I was a smart kid, bookish and shy. I knew the value of hard work, and my parents encouraged me in school. I did well. I was pretty much of a nerd. The quiet girl everyone liked, but no one really knew. I was okay with that."
"How did you meet your husband?"
"In Sunday school when we were kids. We started dating in high school, church youth group things at first. We really liked each other, and that turned into puppy love. As we got older, we started to realize how serious we felt about each other, and we got married the summer after our high school graduation. We spent the first four years of our life together in college, living in the married-student apartments off-campus."
"That's romantic," I said.
"It was, I guess. Anyway, after college, he got a very good job, so he supported me while I worked on my master's degree. We were doing okay, so we decided to start a family. Two kids later, I was lucky enough to get a job where I can actually use my skills."
"You got up to speed on those books faster than anyone I've ever seen. I've been doing this work almost as long as you've been alive."
"Thank you, Don. You're going to have to give me some time to study things, though, before I can give you an accurate idea of where the bad smell of that place is coming from."
She sat back in her chair. "This is nice," she sighed.
"No," she laughed softly. "I meant relaxing with dinner and a drink. I don't do this enough."
"How often do you take time for yourself?"
"I work at least fifty hours a week. I have two kids. I mow the yard for exercise and to get a little sun. I might do some web-surfing if I can't sleep at night, but time for me ended in high school."
"Don't you and Tim do anything together as a couple? A date night, a weekend away?" I asked.
"No, not really. We were going to go on a married couples' retreat with the church a couple of summers ago, but the kids got sick."
"Isn't there anything you do for fun?" I asked.
"Fun? Believe it or not, this is the first time I've been in a place that serves alcohol in about five years. It's probably the first time I've been out of the house alone for something other than work, the hairdresser, or the grocery store since I did my Christmas shopping last fall."
"I used to be like that," I said. "Worked all the time, trying to build my career. I never took time to play, or to really even build any relationships. It didn't make sense to try, since I was always on the road. When I landed this job with the divorce practice, I built a little house, but I never found anyone I wanted to share it with."
"I'm sorry," Sarah said.
"I'm not. Maybe I'm not the type that should be married. I'm just fine in my bachelor pad in the woods."
"Do you see anyone?"
"What are you asking?" I chuckled. "Do I ever have dinner with anyone, or do I get laid?"
Sarah looked embarrassed and then started to giggle. "I meant the former. I would have assumed the latter, depending on your answer."
"The answer to the former is yes."
"Okay," she replied. Awkward silence followed.
"I think I offended you," I said.
"No, no, it's okay. Sex was just the farthest thing from my mind."
It was my turn to be silent.
"You're older, so maybe you can tell me something, if you will?"
"I'll try," I said.
"I could ask my father, but I don't want to know his answer."
"What's your question?"
"I can't believe I'm asking you this. All right. At what age do men start to lose interest in sex?
"I don't know," I chuckled. "I haven't hit it yet."
"Really? How old are you?" Sarah asked.
"You're my father's age, but you still think about, you know, women and sex?"
"Yes. Supposedly, a man's desire peaks in his late teens or early twenties. That may be true, but I haven't noticed much of a decline."