STEELE 'O MY HEART, PART XXI: STEELE STALKINGS
By: Susan Deborah Smith
Disclaimer: This "Remington Steele" story is not-for-profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author and this site do not own the characters and are in no way affiliated with "Remington Steele," the actors, their agents, the producers, MTM Productions, the NBC Television Network or any station or network carrying the show in syndication, or anyone in the industry.
The morning had taken an unexpected turn, and Laura Steele waited impatiently for her husband to return from taking their daughter to her annual check-up. It occurred to her that this would probably be the last time the little girl would allow her father the privilege; it was likely she would insist that her mother be the chaperone from now on.
She heard him greeting the temp receptionist and got up from her chair. As he sat down with his newspaper, he saw her leaning in the doorway that connected her office to his and took his feet down from his desk.
“How is little Miss Steele this morning?” she asked.
“The picture of health,” her father beamed, and went on to quote statistics and medical comments to the effect that Laura Tracy Steele was simply the purest example of a smart, healthy ten year old girl ever to walk the face of the earth.
“Want to know how I am?” Tracy’s mother asked.
His eyes looked the question. Then they shifted in the direction of the couch, before coming back to her face to ask another question.
“How are you?” he said, loosening his tie hopefully.
“Behind the curve,” she snapped.
He pushed the knot back up against his collar. “How so?”
For answer, she flung the magazine down on his desk.
A sultry woman with high, wide cheekbones gazed up from the cover. Steele picked it up for closer examination.
“Rene Russo?” he said, dumbstruck. “Rene Russo wants to hire us? The girl from Get Shorty?”
“MGM, 1995,” Laura put in for him. “No, Rene Russo doesn’t want to hire us.” She took back the August issue of Los Angeles magazine, opened it to the publication page and skimmed down until she found what she was looking for. “My nine o’clock,” she explained, pointing to the name of a contributor, “wasn’t a potential client. It was this woman who’s writing an article. She wanted to talk to me.”
“About … ”
“Crazed fans, stalking cases, the kind of protective services celebrities use to keep them away.”
“We don’t provide those services.”
“Not now. But maybe we should.”
“How did she find you?”
“Our old friend, Lieutenant Jarvis. A sidebar of the article is about normal people being stalked by ex-husbands, old girlfriends, dismissed employees, that sort of thing.”
“Ah. And Jarvis was reminded of that sick, twisted, little — ”
“Life without possibility of parole, Mr. Steele. In another state.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you, Mrs. Steele. How else could we sleep at night?”
She took his hand and held it briefly to her lips before sliding up to sit on his desk. “What happened to me is about halfway between that and most of the cases she’s profiling: Someone of very minor celebrity — ”
“Such as the associate of a famed private detective … ”
“— is often the preferred target. She wanted to ask me about my own experience, and of course she was interested in whether we provided similar services to those offered by that agency in the Valley. Which started me thinking … ”
“Celebrity security screening?” he said, aghast.
“We’ve done it before,” she replied, remembering the case that introduced them to George Mulch.
“Indeed we have. Reading a bunch of boring fan mail in hopes of finding a letter from someone with a more fragile grasp of reality than usual … ”
He was thinking of another client, who had found himself no longer in need of their services when his show was abruptly canceled in the middle of the season.
“We won’t be reading all the mail,” Laura told him. “These other agencies just screen and investigate communications that the client or the client’s handlers identify as worrisome. It’s simple! We evaluate the threat — this is perfect for Gabbie — make a few calls; we find out if the person has a criminal record, past history of mental illness, whatever, and if necessary advise for more security and facilitate filing criminal charges.” She looked deep into his eyes. “And we collect a very comfortable retainer. Almost as good as a finder’s fee.”
He refused to be cajoled. “And who’s going to waste their eyesight on this drivel — besides Miss Reyes?”
“You, me, Mildred, Marvin … ”
“We have plenty of work to do already! Look here. Marvin’s been out on a case for a week now, Mildred never turns off her computer, Gabbie’s only here three days a week. And you and I — ” He reached for his planner, which, unexpectedly showing beautiful blank pages through the rest of the week, did nothing to bolster his cause. “Well, you’re booked tomorrow, aren’t you?” he demanded, shoving the calendar aside. “I saw that teal blue suit come back from the cleaners.”
He was teasing her, and she offered a little wincing sneer in response. “Retainers are steady income,” she replied. “We’ve been trying to grow the business; this will — ”
“Laura, where do you pick up these dreadful phrases? What happened to the romance of our work? The fight for justice, helping the — ”
“ — not to mention Tracy’s education to think about.”
He stared at her. “It’s come to this? The great name of Remington Steele reduced to — ”
“Money in the bank, Mr. Steele,” she said, leaning across his desk for a kiss. When they were nose to nose and eye to eye, she added, “It’s a gravy train, and we might as well get on board.”
For the past several years, Remington Steele Investigations had mostly gone off missing persons cases. People could do a lot of the legwork themselves, over the internet, for one thing; for another, there was an uncomfortable intensity to the ones that did come through the door.
Frequently, they’d found themselves investigating the client as much as they did the stated subject of the search, sometimes with unpleasant results: Restraining orders in other states, charges of malicious mischief, rumours of violence. And despite all the restrictions they put on such cases — if the subject were found, they never revealed that person’s whereabouts; all they would do was deliver a message from the client and leave it at that — there was still the danger that an unstable client, by tracking the investigators, might figure out the location of a person who had good reason not to want to be found.
There was another agency, right around the corner, just down the street, that hadn’t been so careful; they were still suffering serious liability after one of their clients tailed them to a meeting and took a shot. No one had been hurt, except that agency’s reputation, and Laura, though she knew Remington Steele Investigations was better than that, after discussing the matter seriously with her husband, mostly washed their hands of that lucrative segment of the business.
Security screening — for celebrities and executives — it seemed to her would take up the slack.
That evening, while Tracy and Steele made dinner, Laura sat at the table and worked on her idea. Oblivious to the clanking and conversation in the kitchen, she read and cross-checked and spread out until the entire surface was covered. From time to time, she typed in a couple of phrases; mostly she stared at the screen. Stalking was an incredibly unpleasant subject, but fascinating, too, in a repellent kind of way.
“Mom,” said Tracy. “Mommy?”
“What is it, sweetheart?” Laura frowned at the screen and punched a key.
“Time to set the table.”
Numerous clicks of the mouse did not reveal the secret. Pushing her chair back, Laura said, “Make that wrap for me, will you, Tracy? And save it!” She dropped a kiss on the child’s hair and went to investigate what her husband was doing.
“Smells good,” she said, wrapping her arms around him.
“Specialty of the house.”
“I mean you.”
“Ah.” He leaned back against her.
Laura locked her hands on her wrists and matched her breathing to his. There wasn’t a day so long or so hard or so awful that it couldn’t be redeemed by a few minutes like this.
Making short work of the formatting problem, Tracy disposed of her mother’s laptop and various folders, pens and pencils, and slipped past her parents to get a bottle of milk out of the refrigerator.
“Yes, love?” Steele took a lid off a pot to at least give the appearance that he was still involved with meal preparation.
Laura, holding him tighter, turned her head slightly and smiled at her daughter. Depending on her mood, Tracy would either make it a group hug or roll her eyes in dismay.
A businesslike mood revealed itself instead. “Table’s ready.”
“Ah, of course.” Tracy’s father seemed to wake up to reality. “Laura! Dinner. The point of the entire exercise.”
Reluctantly, Laura released her hold on her husband, grabbed the big bowl of salad waiting on the counter, and shepherded Tracy to the table.
“Amber Jenkins got her period today,” Tracy announced as Steele dished up the mixed greens for his family.
“Did she?” He passed Laura a plate.
“She found out in gym class.”
“I won’t say I’m not interested in the details,” Laura admitted, stabbing a forkful of salad, “but can we save this until after dessert?”
In her capacity as Tracy’s informed and concerned mother, Laura had broached the topic of reproduction and sexuality at the various recommended times and in the various recommended ways. She always prepared herself for these discussions by a review of how her own mother had mishandled the situation, and of how she wished she herself had learned these important facts. Tracy had seemed receptive, if somewhat uninterested; this response had cheered Laura, bolstering her confidence in her maternal skills. She was not making a big deal out of nothing; she was answering age-appropriate questions in age-appropriate language; everything was fine.
Her confidence and experience had not quite prepared Laura for the day when some little girl in Tracy’s third grade class had suddenly and unexpectedly shown an unmistakable sign of puberty. She’d been out on a case and came home that afternoon to find her husband and daughter sprawled on the floor in the den, surrounded by books and the little flyers that come in Tampax boxes. Steele, using both correct technical terms and more casual vocabulary, was spelling it all out to the surprised yet curious Tracy.
The only thing left for Laura to do was to offer reassurance that all these things were perfectly fine and normal, and that Tracy wouldn’t have to worry about it for a while yet. She hadn’t been dreading such a detailed discussion, so why had she felt like Steele had saved the day?
It was similar to the sensation she had whenever Tracy, with shining eyes, introduced her to teachers or other parents: “This is my mother,” Tracy would announce proudly, “Laura Holt Steele.” To which the teachers and other parents always replied, “So you’re Mrs. Steele!” in a tone of voice that suggested her reality had been questioned, that she might have been a wonderful figment of Tracy’s excellent imagination.
Mr. Steele, of course, inspired no such awe. He was a familiar fixture at school, at ball games, at Camp Fire meetings. More often than not, Laura just glided in and accepted the praise for having such a smart, such a talented, such a lovely daughter.
He does the work, Laura thought, not for the first time and with mixed feelings, and I take the bows …
The house was quiet. The TV was off, Tracy was in bed, and Remington, finishing his downstairs tour of checking locks and windows and the alarm system, went in search of his wife.
She was sitting just where he’d left her, in front of her computer in the den.
When he shook her, she blinked and looked up. An article from the L.A. Times archive glowed on the screen.
She blew out a long breath. “What time is it?”
“Time,” he suggested, “to stop working and start playing.”
“Look at this,” she said, bringing up another page and pointing. “One out of every twelve women and one out of every forty five men can expect to be stalked by somebody, sometime.”
These weren’t new statistics; they’d taken on stalking cases before. “Well, then,” he replied, “you and I have each met our quota.” He kneaded her shoulders a moment, then let his hands slide down to unbutton her blouse.
Laura was still gazing at the screen, oblivious to his attentions.
“What do you say we go upstairs?” he suggested, slipping a hand inside her bra.
“I want to finish this.”
“What have we got Marvin and Mildred and Gabbie for, except to do the drudge work, eh?” he asked.
At last she looked away from the screen. She let her head fall back; her hands left the keyboard and lay motionless in her lap. Remington bent to kiss her, then scooped her up out of the chair and carried her to the stairs.
Laura laughed and nuzzled his ear; when they paused on the landing, it was for another kiss and not for him to take a breather.
They didn’t hear the knock at the door at first. When their attention was finally drawn, it was less to the soft rapping than to the little voice saying, “Mom? Daddy?” that accompanied it.
Remington took a breath but nothing came out; he didn’t trust his voice.
Laura wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and said, “I’m busy, Tracy, what is it?”
“I feel sick.”
In a twinkling, the eager lover was transformed into the concerned father. He jumped out of bed, pulling on his pajamas, shouldering into his robe. Laura shook her head and waved him back, no doubt considering herself in better condition to deal with this emergency.
“Okay, sweetheart, I’ll be right there!” She went to the bathroom and washed her hands and smoothed her hair and opened the door.
Tracy stood on the threshold, looking miserable and resigned.
“How can you be sick?” Laura demanded, putting her hand to the child’s forehead. “You were just at the doctor this morning!” She felt Tracy’s throat and under her ears. “Didn’t you take her to the well child’s waiting room?”
By now, Remington was chastely tucked into bed with a magazine. Weathering this accusation with aplomb, he replied, “There wasn’t a cough or a sniffle to be heard anywhere. Right, Tracy?” He laid his glasses aside and eyed his daughter inquisitively. “Where’d you get those germs, then, eh?”
Tracy leaned against her mother. “Dunno.”
“All right. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Mother and child went out, leaving Remington to contemplate yet again the joys and woes of his triple role as husband, lover and father.
Laura returned a while later, alone.
“She all right?”
“A little temperature, a little headache. I gave her something. We’ll see.” Laura shed her robe and climbed into bed. “Still in the mood, Mr. Steele?”
“Hmmm.” He considered this, then reached for her, rolled her over to lie on his chest. Her hair spilled down as if to shield their faces from view. Looking up into her eyes, he said, “I believe so, yes.”
He heard her get up once, and Tracy coughing. When Laura slipped back into bed without comment, he fell asleep again before jerking awake, alert in the dark.
His dreams were unsettled: He was alone somewhere — hiding? trapped? — and Laura was looking for him. He could hear her calling, “Mr. Steele? Mr. Steele?” but when he tried to answer, his voice was cut off. It was like he was under water, or smothered in honey. Then he stood up, and he could see her; he waved to her, but she began to run, not in his direction, and he saw that she was being chased by someone, and he couldn’t get there in time.
Shaking off the memory, he got up and checked Tracy himself, just to be sure.
“How is she?” Laura asked, her voice muffled by the pillow.
“Sound asleep.” He settled back into her arms as if he’d never left.
Remington smiled. “Mmm, yes, love. Sound asleep.”
Marvin Slaughtman was waiting for Mrs. Steele the moment she came into the office. He was on the edge of his expenses on the Palisades case and needed her approval for a rendezvous he was planning with a witness.
“Email it to me, Marvin,” she told him.
“Right-oh,” he agreed. “I just thought you’d like to know how it’s going.”
“I’m sure it’s going fine. I’ve read your reports so far.” She looked at her watch. “Can we meet with the client tomorrow?”
“Certainly, but — ”
Mrs. Steele held up a hand to put a halt to further discussion. “Fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been up half the night with a sick child.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I hope she’s okay.”
“Thanks.” Seeming to relax a bit, she smiled for the first time. Almost apologetically, she said, “It’s just a cold, but you know.”
He nodded commiseratingly and got out of her way as she went to her office.
Mr. Steele came in next, grabbed his mail from the receptionist and headed straight to his office, muttering, “Morning, morning, morning … ” without looking up.
Mildred passed by on her way back from the Xerox machine. “Early lunch?” she suggested knowingly.
“Er, no,” said Marvin, who sometimes felt at a loss. “Sick child.”
Mildred ordered, “Transfer all their calls to me.”
A minute later, Mrs. Steele appeared in the doorway of Mildred’s office with an armful of folders. “Tracy has a cold,” she explained.
“Poor little thing,” Mildred replied.
“So I’m going home. Mr. Steele will take my morning appointments, but I’ll be back for this three o’clock — ”
“Mr. Westfield?” Mildred guessed.
Mrs. Steele smiled only slightly. “Mr. Westfield,” she agreed. She put four folders down on Mildred’s desk. “Gabbie’s supposed to come by on her way to school. Ask her to counter-sign these reports, and to please find that threat assessment casebook so we can all read it. Order extra copies.”
“You got it.”
“And tell Marvin — ”
“Marvin!” Mildred yelled, since she could see him hovering in the lobby.
Mrs. Steele seemed to see him for the first time. “Marvin, Mr. Steele’s taking my morning appointments. Would you please burst into his office with an urgent message from me at eleven forty five? Thanks.”
Marvin programmed this into his beeper. “Eleven forty five. Any special message?”
She shrugged. “Wing it.”
Enigmatic messages were no stranger to the staff of Remington Steele Investigations.
Mildred waved goodbye to Mrs. Steele and went back to tracing a client’s partner’s off-shore accounts.
It was kind of nice, working at home. Tracy was upstairs in bed; Beatriz, after putting a pot of soup on to simmer, was out doing the marketing; the neighbours were all at work. Everything was quiet, the windows were open, and the sun was shining in; the solitude was invigorating.
Laura picked right up where she’d left off the night before and made a lot of headway, despite getting six emails from Marvin, which she didn’t read, and one from Steele suggesting that Gabbie should take the three o’clock with William Westfield because if she insisted on coming back to the office, he had something else in mind, like …
“How many times do I have to tell you, don’t put things like that in an email!” Laura wrote back, deleting it instantly.
Twenty minutes later, she received a confused message originating from Gabbie’s university account, inquiring whether Mrs. Steele had the file on the Westfield case, and did she need any additional facts or prep before meeting with the client?
And of course, she’d been up and down stairs fifteen times with juice, cough medicine, Vaporub, cold water, hot tea and just to be company.
The printer hummed and spat out two pages. Laura carried them upstairs. “Tracy, I need your advice.”
The little girl looked up from her book.
“Which cover do you like better?” she asked, holding up two samples.
Tracy studied them closely. “That one,” she said, pointing to the one in her mother’s left hand.
Laura grinned. “That’s you, me and Gabbie versus Mildred and your dad.”
The girl’s eyes slid over to examine the other one on second thought, out of loyalty, but she shook her head. “That one’s better.”
Validated in both her artistic and her business sense, Laura went to the door, but was called back by a muffled, electronic rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”
Tracy was squinting at her beeper. “Dad says, ‘Tell your mother not to worry about three o’clock.’ That’s great! You don’t have to go back to work.”
It was on her lips to say she did have to go back to work, that they had a nice retainer from Westfield, Westfield and Kaufman, that this was an important client and a good friend. Instead, she sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at her daughter.
“When you were little,” Laura told her, “we could put you in a basket in my office and the clients never knew you were there.”
“Too bad I got big, huh?”
Laura shook her head. “No, not too bad.”
Steele’s blue eyes gazed solemnly out of her own face, as it had been thirty some years ago. “Dad could’ve stayed. Or Dad could’ve gone to the store.”
“Your dad doesn’t have to do everything,” Tracy’s mother reassured her.
As directed, Marvin went straight in to Mr. Steele’s office at a quarter to twelve. “Mr. Steele!” he exclaimed.
The two clients looked around; Mr. Steele snapped to attention.
“Marvin? Can’t you see I’m with a client?”
“Sorry, sir. It’s Mrs. Steele, sir. She said it can’t wait!”
Mr. Steele grabbed for the phone. “Laura? Laura! She’s not there.” He got up. “Will you excuse me, gentlemen? Something’s gone wrong with our top-notch telecommunications system.”
He followed Marvin out. “Did she say what it was? Is Tracy all right?”
“It’s all a ploy, Mr. Steele,” Marvin explained quietly. “Mrs. Steele said to get you out of your meeting at eleven forty five.”
Mr. Steele blinked at him. “She’s a genius, Marvin. An absolute genius. I was nodding off in there.” Clapping Marvin on the shoulder, he added, “Take over for me, eh?”
Remington sat down in Laura’s office, punched the speed dial and waited for somebody to answer the phone. “Steele, here, Laura, how’s the patient?”
Of course Tracy was fine: fever dropping, sore throat improved, sniffles merely annoying.
“Marvin gave me your message. My gratitude is endless. After all these years, Laura, I still don’t know how you sit through these boring meetings.” He leaned back in her chair and gazed out the window. “Yes, I know these trivial cases put money in the bank. I just don’t know how you do it.”
Unfortunately, the mention of work had taken Laura’s mind off their family and reminded her that she was pretty overheated about the way he was managing her schedule and controlling her life.
“Yes, well, I thought I’d save you the drive. Miss Reyes can — Yes, Laura, I know she’s scheduled to be in class today, but she told me that this afternoon it’s just office hours, and another — Yes, I know we shouldn’t intrude, but she doesn’t mind — She — ” He took a deep breath. “Well, then, if you like, we’ll just stick with our plan, eh? I’ll come home, and you can come back and meet with Westfield. It sounds to me like you’re getting a lot done, away from the hustle and the bustle of our busy office, but if you’re willing to break the rhythm, who am I to — ”
Finally, he got through to her. Never let it be said that Remington Steele didn’t know how his wife’s mind worked. He didn’t always put this knowledge to good use, but it was always there.
At three o’clock, Mr. Westfield was announced. Instead of taking a seat, he moved in the direction of Mrs. Steele’s office, and turned in surprise when he heard someone else’s voice say his name.
“Mr. Westfield? I’m Gabriella Reyes.”
“Of course.” Mr. Westfield, a tall man with a ready smile and brown hair going gray, shook her hand. “Laura’s mentioned your name several times.”
“Mrs. Steele had urgent business to take care of,” she explained.
“But I have the file, and we should be able to get started — ” A little nervous, Gabbie heard herself talking faster and faster and tried to slow down. “ — if you’ll come this way?”
It was possible that Mr. Westfield was disappointed that Ms. Reyes was taking over for Mrs. Steele, but it didn’t show. His eyes flicked once around the lobby; then he picked up his briefcase and followed her into her office.
“You’re a Stanford grad?” he suggested, pulling up a chair.
She shook her head. “UCLA.”
“I guess Laura likes to keep ‘em in the Pac 10.” There was that smile again, and Mr. Westfield leaned closer to ask confidentially, “How do you get on with the Trojan next door?”
“Marvin?” Gabbie’s own smile was reserved. “Oh, we get along. Fine.”
Mr. Westfield sat back and laughed and handed a folder across the desk.
He was pleasant and patient while she sounded out the general drift — she was ever more conscious that this was an important client, the most important she’d been assigned to see on her own — and made more idle conversation while she cross-checked a couple of things in the file.
“Registered voter?” he asked, as she clicked from screen to screen. And, “I think Laura mentioned you’ve been gone for a while.”
“Graduate school,” she explained, scrolling. “In New York.”
For which, she reminded herself, the Steeles had paid. “Don’t quit,” Mrs. Steele had said, writing the check. “If for some crazy reason they still don’t want you at the FBI when you’re done, come back to us.” So here she was, back with Remington Steele Investigations, seeing a client the boss only ever dealt with.
It wasn’t a very complicated case, especially compared with others in the Westfield file; just a background check on two prospective employees, not a thing to do with anything pending in court, nothing life or death, and he admitted that.
“Some things I just like to handle myself,” he said with a shrug.
“We should have results for you by Thursday.” Gabbie gave him her card. “If you have any questions, please call me, or Mrs. Steele.”
He looked at the card, then put it carefully away. “I will, thanks.”
“Ah, Westfield,” Mr. Steele said, as she escorted the client to the door. “Decided to drive out from downtown to see us?”
Mr. Westfield shook the offered hand. “Change of scene,” he replied.
“Laura’s very sorry to have had to miss your meeting today.”
“Not at all. Ms. Reyes has everything well in hand.” He nodded to Gabbie, smiled warmly at her and at Mr. Steele. “Good to see you, Steele,” he said on his way out. “Give Laura my regards.”
“I will, indeed.” Belatedly, he followed Westfield to the door, saying, “And mine to Chloe.”
As soon as Mr. Steele was back in his office, Mildred jerked her head toward where Mr. Westfield had been and remarked, “He still looks good.”
Gabbie considered that for a man his age Mr. Westfield looked pretty good. Not as good as Mr. Steele, of course, but pretty good.
“Yes,” she agreed.
Remembering the way his hazel eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled, she thought she might be willing to allow him more than that.
“He and the boss go back a long way.”
It began to dawn on Gabbie that there might be another reason why Mrs. Steele always handled this client herself. “You mean he and Mrs. Steele — ”
“If the chief ever had any serious competition,” Mildred added, sotto voce, “he was it.’
“Really?” Gabbie had a keen ear and a keen eye and an instinct for gossip — it gave her a real edge when she was under cover; people confided in her for practically no reason, and she heard things other people might have missed — but this was the first she’d heard that William Westfield was anything more than a big client and a mutual friend of the Steeles.
Mr. and Mrs. Steele had been married a long time, and in business together before that, so it was hard for Gabbie to picture either of them apart. Sure, she’d run into some guys Mrs. Steele used to know — they were directors of labs or banks or managers of businesses the agency dealt with from time to time — but they all seemed to date from Mrs. Steele’s college days and were quiet until called for.
Former liaisons of Mr. Steele’s, on the other hand, occasionally disrupted the smooth workings of the firm. A tall blonde had stopped by more than once during Gabbie’s tenure, and you didn’t need a degree in psychology to recognize that that brunette had a personality disorder. Talk about stalking! According to Mildred, always a font of knowledge, that one was pure, one hundred per cent loca — extra muy loca. Among other things, she supposedly fired a shot at Mrs. Steele, or paid somebody to shoot her, or something, right after the Steeles were married. As far as Gabbie knew, the blonde had never been that direct.
But these women, like Mrs. Steele’s admirers, seemed to know Mr. Steele from back before he and Mrs. Steele formed the agency.
She guessed she’d always thought that once the two of them met up, that had been it. Although they often disagreed — about cases, about assignments, about really crazy stuff, and sometimes pretty loudly, too; Mrs. Steele’s voice could carry — Laura and Remington Steele were the tightest couple Gabbie had ever seen. Together practically 24/7, for years! and they still couldn’t get enough of each other.
He was doodling on his pad. Coming forward with the file, Gabbie saw that he’d made a little sketch of Mrs. Steele, a good one; he glanced once or twice at one of the photos he kept on his desk as he drew.
That was another thing — his wife sat in the office next door, day after day, he only had to look up to see her, but he kept those two 8 by 10s right in front of him. One, from ten or fifteen years ago, showed a pretty glamourous Mrs. Steele gazing out with her big eyes, long hair swirling around her shoulders. In the other, taken last year, she was more tailored; though her hair was still kind of long for a woman her age, she had a face that could take it. It almost seemed like it was the makeup that changed, not Mrs. Steele.
“Should I just finish this one?” she asked.
Mr. Steele swept the drawing aside; Gabbie saw it was from the more recent picture, although he’d sketched in quite a different outfit from the one in the photo.
“What’s your estimate?”
“It’s a background check,” Gabbie told him. “A few hours.”
Mr. Steele frowned, then nodded. “Mrs. Steele’s hot on the trail of a real moneymaker, Miss Reyes. Let’s give her a break from the trivial, eh?”
“And here’s the book she’s waiting for.”
He took it and thumbed through it absently. “A few bricks shy of a load, these people, wouldn’t you say?”
Apparently he’d opened a Pandora’s box; a litany of technical phrases came at him from across the desk as Gabbie offered her professional opinion.
“ … could be paranoid schizophrenics, like the guy who stabbed Theresa Saldana … ”
“ … rapid cycling — that’s at least four episodes of a mood disturbance in the previous twelve months that meet the criteria for a major depressive, manic, mixed or hypomanic episode … ”
“ … or like the guy who shot Rebecca Schaeffer … ”
“ … also paranoid or delusional. It used to be called DeClembault’s Romance, I think. I’ll look it up in my notes at home.”
“In other words,” Remington suggested, to stem the tide, “two tacos short of a combination plate.”
He looked at her with a perfectly serious expression, which prompted her to grin and smother a laugh. “Yes, sir,” Gabbie replied, loyally, “that’s the medical term for it.”
Shaking his head, he leaned back in his chair. “Ah, Miss Reyes,” he sighed. “Whatever happened to the good old days? Thefts of precious gems, diabolical, conniving business partners, furious heirs at each other’s throats, mayhem, murder … ”
“Bombs, kidnapping, terror … ” she put in.
“What you’d give for a shot at a case like that, eh, Gabbie?” he concluded.
“You guys make it sound really exciting.”
The good old days indeed. Remington smiled to himself. “Oh, yes. Even insurance fraud was exciting back then.”
He read a few pages of the book, then got up to pace around his office. A glance out the window revealed the waning of a fine autumn day during which he’d put in, yes, a few hours’ work: He’d gone over some accounts with Mildred; he’d advised Marvin on a problem with one of their current cases; he’d wound up a few reports. And he’d gone to considerable effort to derail Laura’s meeting with William Westfield …
That last seemed to represent how he’d spent the bulk of his day, and for what? As if Laura didn’t meet with him whenever the Westfield firm had need of deeper investigation to bolster a client’s defense, as if the Steeles and the Westfields didn’t meet for golf whenever time allowed, as if he imagined something going on. As if he had anything to worry about.
What would Miss Reyes make of that? he wondered.
He turned over the pages of his calendar. Everyone else used their electronic ones; he preferred to see things laid out on clean, white pages. Mildred or Laura or whatever temp the agency sent over penciled in new appointments for him when he wasn’t there, and it was nice to have some record — some real record — to refer to. Very little of his life, up until the time he met Laura, was documented anywhere. For obvious reasons, he’d kept it that way. Since becoming Remington Steele — most of twenty years, now — he liked having something to hold onto, and he resisted certain of these new-fangled changes.
Gazing down at the rest of the week, he saw that it was pretty empty except for a staff meeting on Friday. And then next week — also pretty empty. People who needed private investigators generally didn’t recognize this need very far in advance.
Something was marked in for the following weekend, however. Remington hadn’t noticed it before. In bold, faintly back-slanted writing was the word, “Catalina” with a fat question mark after it.
Gabbie wasn’t sure how Mr. and Mrs. Steele had lived through the good old days, since things in the last five years, at least from her perspective, had been pretty exciting and not without the occasional close shave. She drove home that night thinking less about the dilemma of fitting her PhD program in with her career as a full time investigator, and more about the Steeles. She hadn’t puzzled over them in a long, long time.
The introspective Mrs. Steele, for instance: Gabbie hadn’t worked for Remington Steele Investigations long before she began to notice signs that Mrs. Steele had — or had once had — serious issues with trust. And she hadn’t been there much longer before she had an unexpected glimpse into just how small was the circle of friends Mrs. Steele actually trusted. Equally unexpectedly, she’d been invited in — hauled in — to that circle because Mr. Steele had been hurt and there didn’t seem to be too many people Mrs. Steele felt she could fall back on. From that moment on, Gabbie wasn’t just the office manager; she was inside, one of them, relied upon in a new way, the recipient of faith and confidence, a loyal operative of Remington Steele Investigations.
Probably the gregarious Mr. Steele had similar issues; he just put a different face on them: He was so relaxed, so smooth, so congenial. He put the glad into glad-handing which, he confided to Gabbie one day, was his original job: Glad-handing the clients. Gabbie knew Remington Steele’s biography was a masterful work of public relations, and that Mr. Steele had learned most of the business from the former Miss Holt.
The famed detective was a devoted family man, the interesting result of what Gabbie learned was a sad and troubled childhood. No doubt it had been in those days that Mr. Steele developed a lot of unusual skills. Some of those skills were the kind you were more likely to find in prison populations; there didn’t seem to be a lock on the planet that he couldn’t make short work of. He had a lot of arcane knowledge about museums and famous gems and celebrated heists, too. Gabbie thought he would have had lots to say about that movie about the guy who stole a famous painting from a museum, but it turned out to be a remake of something Mr. Steele deemed a classic that ought not to be tampered with, so he knew nothing about it — which was funny, because Mrs. Steele had seen it three times.
It was fun to go undercover with him because he could transform the most tedious case into something straight out of the movies. He really had some wild ideas.
Remington snatched the mail from the mail box and walked back up the driveway, whistling. “Girls?” he bellowed from the door. “Ladies? I’m home!”
He nearly collided with Beatriz, clocking out after a trying day. “Is much easier when you stay home, Mr. Steele,” she told him.
“Really? How so?”
Beatriz glanced around, as if fearful of being overheard. “Mrs. Steele, she’s busy all the time.”
“Yes, that’s Mrs. Steele, all right.”
The housekeeper heaved a heavy sigh. “Makes me tired, just to watch.”
“I know the feeling,” he admitted. “You go home and get some rest, then, eh?”
As he shut the door, Tracy barreled in from somewhere.
“What are you doing out of bed?” he demanded. “Miraculous recovery? Your mother’s special remedy?”
“Beatriz made soup for lunch, and then Mom sent her out to get us Jamba Juices, and then we watched — ”
Remington held up his hand. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess. X-Files? Atomic Man?”
“Both!” Tracy beamed.
“Laura! You’re rotting this child’s brain!” He found her in the den, sitting in front of the TV, surrounded by papers. “An entire cabinet filled with the cream of the world’s cinema, and the pair of you are ruining your eyesight on science fiction.”
“Mr. Steele!” Laura replied. “Home so soon?” She stretched up to meet his kiss.
“I hear you’ve had a busy day,” he observed.
“Tracy and I’ve been writing copy for our brochure.”
“Ah, excellent! Get over a cold and learn the family business, all at the same time.”
“We picked this cover,” Tracy told him, pointing.
“Auntie Mildred will be very disappointed.” Loosening his tie, he studied the layout and graphics on the various pages. “No photos?” he asked.
“We don’t want people stalking us,” Laura reminded him.
“No, of course not. We’ve had enough of that.”
“Our clients will know what we look like. And speaking of clients,” she added.
He swallowed. “Yes?”
“Gabbie’s on the Westfield case?”
“Barely scratches the surface of her talents.”
There was a hesitation so slight only he would notice it. “Good.” She smiled up at him. “Tracy and I had a nice afternoon.”
Remington glanced around. He’d expected something of a different reaction. “You did?”
“Yes, we did. We made a lot of progress.”
“Ah. Good. Excellent.”
That Laura wasn’t pressing the Westfield situation began to make him feel foolish — more foolish than he did already.
“I just wanted you to have some peace and quiet,” he said.
Laura looked up at him, saw right through him. “I know,” she replied, pulling him down for another kiss.
Doors at the offices of Remington Steele Investigations were generally open, except when someone was seeing a client, or when the boss and the chief took an early lunch, or a late lunch, or whatever. Mrs. Steele’s door was wide open, and someone standing close by would have had no trouble hearing the conversation.
“I still don’t know why you didn’t run for D.A.,” Mrs. Steele was saying.
William Westfield gazed at her knowingly. “Because it takes a lot of time and a lot of money and why would I want to follow that guy into office anyway?”
“Could you do any worse?” Mr. Steele called from his office.
Mrs. Steele laughed and looked up and saw her hovering in the doorway. “Gabbie, great. Here are your results, William.”
Mr. Westfield rose as Gabbie came in. She tried to hand Mrs. Steele the file, but was instead waved to a chair. Mr. Westfield sat down again, and under Mrs. Steele’s encouraging eye, Gabbie showed him various faxes and printouts, explained some of the comments, summarized her results.
“So, okay to hire,” he said.
“Well.” He was asking her opinion. “Yes, I guess, if this is the only thing left.”
“Remington Steele Investigations comes through again,” he smiled.
“As always,” Mrs. Steele remarked.
“This is great. Is this mine?” He tucked his copy of the report into his briefcase.
“Thanks, Gabbie.” This time, Mrs. Steele took the file.
Mr. Westfield rose again and shook hands, then turned to Mrs. Steele. “Listen, Laura, we’re booked this weekend, but what about next?”
“Oh,” she said. “No. We’re — ”
“ — going out of town.” Mr. Steele leaned in through the connecting door.
“To Catalina,” Mrs. Steele explained, slipping her arm around her husband’s waist.
Mr. Westfield smiled. “Oh, well. We’ll get in some practice and slaughter you next time.”
“I wouldn’t count on that, mate,” Mr. Steele advised.
Mrs. Steele laughed and gave him a squeeze, then walked Mr. Westfield to the door. His hand touched her back very lightly as he bent to brush a brotherly kiss against her cheek. When she turned around, she was smiling but not blushing.
Returning to her office, Laura found Steele comfortably ensconced at her desk. “The Westfields?” he was saying, tossing a pencil at the ceiling. “Slaughter us? At golf?” The pencil fell back into his hands; he tucked it into a drawer. “Baseball, possibly,” he mused, “with the five of them against the three of us. But golf?” He dismissed this out of hand. “Only if it was you and Westfield against Chloe and me. That, I admit, would be a slaughter.”
“Come on,” she said, giving him her hands. “You’re good.”
He pulled her onto his lap. “After all these years, I should be.” Enfolding her in his arms, he kissed her deeply. Then, barely lifting his lips from hers, he said, “That’s all right, Miss Reyes. Just leave the file over there.”
Laura whirled away from him and landed on her feet, brushing at her suit, pushing at her hair. When she looked up, businesslike if a bit flustered, there was no one there.
“Gotcha,” said Steele, aiming his finger at her. He rose easily from her chair, enjoying her wrath, and as he went past her, his hand lingered on her backside.
“I’ll get you,” she retorted.
“I hope so,” he replied.
Remington studied the sheet of paper. “So this is a letter from a merely infatuated harmless person,” he said, “and this one,” he held up another, “is from someone who’s going to get on a plane and break into the house and create, if not mayhem, then an atmosphere of, say, considerable trepidation.”
“You got it, chief,” Mildred replied.
“And the difference is … ”
She smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “Come on, Mr. Steele. Get in the spirit!”
“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you, Mildred?”
“Beats staking out a trailer park in Pacoima.”
“Listen, chief,” Mildred told him. “When you get to be my age, and you can’t chase a suspect around a corner and over a fence any more, you’ll be happy Mrs. Steele thought of this.”
“Of course, you’re right, Mildred,” he agreed, but it wasn’t his old age he was thinking of.
She was still a crack shot with a computer, was Mildred, and the years hadn’t dimmed her ability to size up a client and a situation. As always, she was their moral support, analyzing and coping with not only the agency’s problems, but their personal ones as well: Gabbie’s misfit boyfriend; the lady Marvin had finally persuaded to the altar; all their ups and downs came under scrutiny and in for her determined opinions and frequently sage advice.
Mildred was indispensable to the firm, just as they were indispensable to her. They were her children, the ones she never had, and parenthood — biological, surrogate, or otherwise — was a job you never retired from.
Laura poked her head in the door. “I’m going to pick up Tracy,” she announced, “and talk to the printer about this.” She brandished a diskette and some printouts.
“Yes, Mildred and I will carry on here,” her husband replied, gazing at her over his glasses. Then he pulled them off and snapped the case shut. Folding his hands behind his head, he added, “If we’re not overcome by the tedium.”
“Don’t worry, boss,” Mildred winked. “The chief and I’ll hold down the fort.”
The next day, Mrs. Steele sat at the head of the conference table and held up a glossy, six-page, fold-out brochure. “This,” she said, “explains who we are, and what we can do for a potential client.”
Mildred and Mr. Steele had already seen it; Marvin read it over Gabbie’s shoulder.
“Laura Holt Steele, founder of Remington Steele Investigations, was graduated from Stanford University and has more than 20 years’ experience as a private detective in the state of California … ”
“Mildred Krebs, a former investigator for the Internal Revenue Service, has been with the Steele agency since 1983 and specializes in … ”
“Marvin T. Slaughtman began his investigating career as an intern for Mr. Steele in 1986 and returned to the firm in 1997 to … ”
“Gabriella Reyes started with Remington Steele Investigations in 1994 and holds a master’s degree in forensic psychology from … ”
“The internationally renowned Remington Steele brings his unique insights into the criminal mind to every case undertaken by the agency that bears his name … ”
Gabbie was entirely satisfied with her little bio, but Marvin had a complaint. “What about my MBA?” he demanded, noting that just about everybody else’s educational background came in for notice.
“Not important, Marvin,” Mildred told him.
“Yes, but — ”
“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Steele. She typed in a little note. “Your degree — I didn’t even connect it with your work here.”
“Wouldn’t want people to think you’re just here to keep the books, eh, Marvin?” Mr. Steele suggested.
“Well, no, but — ”
“That MBA has its uses, but it’s not the most glamourous side of your career, is it?”
Mollified, Marvin admitted, “That’s true.”
“Any corrections, additions, whatever, email them to me by one o’clock,” Laura announced. “We’ve got to have this ready by Monday.”
“Which is when Mrs. Steele takes her first meeting on this new venture,” her husband and partner observed.
Gabbie slid the brochure back down the table. “If you need someone to run this over to Matt Damon, Mrs. Steele,” she offered, glancing at her watch, “I don’t have to be back in class until two.”
“Keep your shirt on, kid,” Mildred warned. “If anyone’s pitching this agency to Matt Damon, it’s gonna be me.” To Mr. Steele, she explained, “Clients like that want to put their trust in an experienced person, someone who’s mature, sophisticated, someone who reminds them of — ”
“All right,” Mrs. Steele interrupted. “Let’s try not to sound too much like the people our clients need protection from.”
“Julia Roberts is already covered, Marvin,” Mr. Steele told him.