The Dangerous Hour


By Marcia Muller

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San Francisco’s toughest private eye, Sharon McCone, is back and fighting for her life in Marcia Muller’s acclaimed series.

Sharon McCone’s detective agency is growing and the future is looking bright. But when one of her employees—the streetwise and savvy Julia Rafael—is arrested for stealing a credit card from a client, the entire firm’s reputation could be ruined. Although the evidence against her is strong, Julia swears she’s innocent. And as McCone begins to dig deeper, she discovers that someone is out to destroy everything she’s built. Now it’s her turn to prove just how tough she really is, and how far she’ll go to get justice…and some payback of her own.



















DOUBLE (with Bill Pronzini)









A number of people have volunteered their time and expertise during the writing of this novel. Many thanks to:

Melissa Meith, director and chief administrative judge, Office of Administrative Services, California Department of Consumer Affairs, who not only provided legal insight, but suggested the subject matter.

Kathleen Hamilton, director, Department of Consumer Affairs.

Sherrie Moffet-Bell, deputy chief, Bureau of Security and Administrative Services, Department of Consumer Affairs.

Michael G. Gomez, chief, Division of Investigation, Department of Consumer Affairs.

Linda Robertson, attorney-at-law.

Eileen Hirst, San Francisco County Sheriff's Department.

Paul Cummins, San Francisco District Attorney's Office.

And, of course, Bill Pronzini, who is always there for me.



I dropped the legal pad full of notes on my office desk, went to the high, arching window that overlooked San Francisco Bay, and waved exuberantly at the pilot of a passing tugboat. He stared, probably thinking me demented, then waved back.

The reason for my impulsive gesture was that I'd just come from a midafternoon meeting with my entire staff in our newly refurbished conference room—a let-the-phones-go-on-the-machine, everybody-must-attend gathering, during which we'd discussed McCone Investigations' present healthy state and bright future prospects. When the session broke up, the others were as high-spirited as I.

During the past two years our business had tripled. Last year we'd taken over all the offices fronting on the north-side second-story catwalk at Pier 241/2. My nephew, Mick Savage, now headed up our new computer forensics department and was about to hire another specialist in that area. His live-in love, Charlotte Keim, was overwhelmed with her financial investigations—locating hidden assets, tracing employees who had absconded with company funds, exposing other corporate wrongdoing—and I'd authorized her to begin interviewing for two assistants. Craig Morland, a former FBI agent, was invaluable on governmental affairs, as well as a damn good man in the field; and my newest hire, Julia Rafael, had shaped up into a fine all-around operative. I didn't see any reason why either wouldn't eventually supervise his or her own department. Of course, my office manager, Ted Smalley, had yet to settle on an assistant who lived up to his exacting standards of efficiency—so many had passed through his office that I'd stopped trying to remember their last names—but I had no doubt that in time the individual whom he called "a paragon of the paper clips" would appear, résumé in hand.

Not a bad situation for a woman who once worked out of a converted closet at a poverty law firm.

Still, sometimes I missed those days when my generation had held the firm conviction that we could change the world. Which was why the ratty old armchair where I'd done some of my best thinking inside that closet now sat under my schefflera plant by the window of this spacious office at the pier—covered, of course, by a tasteful handwoven throw. I flopped into it to savor my professional good fortune.

I'd basked in the afterglow of the meeting for only a few minutes, while conveniently ignoring a couple of personal issues that had been nagging at me, when the phone buzzed. I went to the desk and picked up.

Ted. "You'd better get out here fast!"

Something wrong. Really wrong. So much for basking.

I dropped the receiver into the cradle. As I hurried onto the catwalk, I heard the words ". . . silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law."

Two men near the top of the stairway. Plainclothes police officers; I recognized one. He stood poised to assist as his partner struggled with Julia Rafael, attempting to handcuff her. She bent over, kicking backward at his shins, trying to break his grasp. Beyond them Ted and Mick stood, looking confused and helpless.

"You have the right to speak to an attorney . . ."

Confusion gripped me, too. "What the hell's going on here?" I demanded.

Before either man could reply, Julia screamed, "Help me, Shar! I didn't do anything!" Then the fight went out of her, and she collapsed, nearly taking down the officer.

He steadied himself, went on, "And to have an attorney present . . ."

He finished Mirandizing Julia and yanked her upright by the cuffs. She cried out in pain, and I warned, "Careful. You've got witnesses."

He ignored me.

I turned to the other officer. August Williams, an inspector on the SFPD Fraud detail. On several occasions I'd supplied him with leads that I'd stumbled across. "What's the charge, Augie?" I asked.

"Ms. Rafael has been accused of grand theft," he replied. "Specifically, stealing and making purchases with a MasterCard belonging to—"

"I'll take her downstairs," his partner said.

I looked at Julia. Now she stood erect, dwarfing the arresting officer by some two inches. Her severe features were stony, her dark eyes blank. She didn't meet my eyes.

She'd been in this situation before, as a juvenile, and knew the drill.

I said, "Go with him, Jules. I'll call Glenn Solomon."

At my mention of the city's top criminal-defense attorney, the inspector who was ushering Julia toward the stairway paused, then glared at me. Great—a hard case, one of the types that the department was attracting, and eventually having to discipline, in increasing numbers. Thank God he was partnered with Williams, an even-tempered and by-the-book cop.

As his partner ushered Julia down the stairway, I touched Williams's arm. "Augie," I said, "make him go easy."

He nodded, his jaw set.

"As you started to say," I added, "a MasterCard belonging to . . . ?"

He looked down at me—a big, handsome man with rich brown skin, close-cropped gray hair, and concerned eyes that were pouched from lack of sleep. For a good cop, sleep is always in short supply.

"A credit card belonging to Supervisor Alex Aguilar. He alleges she stole it from his wallet after he rejected her sexual advances last month, and has used it to run up over five thousand dollars' worth of purchases."

Alex Aguilar. Founder and director of Trabajo por Todos—Work for All—a Mission-district job-training program designed to bring the city's disadvantaged Hispanics into the mainstream. Two-term member of the city's board of supervisors. Rumored to be positioning himself to become our first Hispanic mayor.

Alex Aguilar—our former client. He'd hired us to investigate a series of thefts from the job-training center. I'd assigned Julia, since she was my only Hispanic operative. When I called Aguilar after she'd brought the investigation to a satisfactory conclusion, he said he was pleased and would recommend our services to others.

Now he was accusing her of grand theft.

"I don't believe it," I said.

Williams shrugged. "I'm sorry, Sharon, but there's more. I have a warrant to search any part of your offices that Ms. Rafael has access to."

I took the document he held out as a pair of uniformed officers came up the stairway. It specified packages and merchandise from, Lands' End, J. Jill, Coldwater Creek, Sundance, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, and The Peruvian Connection, as well as a MasterCard in the name of A. Aguilar.

The warrant was in order.

"Go ahead and search," I said.

I accompanied Williams and his men to the office Julia shared with Craig Morland. Craig wasn't there, and neither were any of the items listed on the warrant. When they finished, Augie asked, "What other areas does she have access to?"

"All of them. I trust my employees and don't restrict them."

But was I wrong to put my trust in Julia? Given her history?

I pushed the doubts aside and added, "We'll start with my own office."

After Williams and the uniforms had left empty-handed, I said to Ted, "Get Glenn Solomon on the phone for me, please."

Ted hesitated, looking at Mick, who had remained on the catwalk with him. "May we speak privately?"

"Of course."

We went inside his office, and he shut the door. "You didn't tell them about the mail room," he said.

". . . It slipped my mind."

"Nothing like that slips your mind. You deliberately didn't tell them. Does that mean you think Jules is guilty?"

"I don't know what to think. They must have some pretty compelling evidence, to walk in here and arrest her without first asking her to come in for questioning."

Ted crossed his arms, leaning against his desk, and shook his shaggy mane of gray-black hair. He'd been growing it long—always the prelude to some change in fashion statement—and it was at the unruly stage. "I can't believe you don't have more faith in her. After all, you hired her in spite of her juvenile record. You're the one who keeps praising her for the way she's turned her life around."

His implied accusation made me feel small, disloyal to an employee who had, up until now, given me no reason to doubt her. But doubt still nagged at me. Ted saw I was conflicted and let me off the hook. "I'll get Glenn on the phone now."

"Thanks. And then will you please print me out a copy of the Aguilar file?"

I went back to my office and flopped onto my desk chair, numb. All the good feelings I'd been reveling in were gone now. Once again life had reminded me that things are never as secure as they seem. That none of us is immune to the sudden, vicious blow that can descend at any time and place.

Ted put Glenn through a few minutes later.

"This is bad news, my friend," he said when I finished explaining the situation.

"You don't need to tell me that."

"Julia Rafael—she's the big one, right? Five-eleven or six feet, bodybuilder's shoulders? Standoffish?"

"She's shy. She came up the hard way, and she's not comfortable with people outside her own sphere yet."

"I wasn't putting her down. That's how I acted when I first enrolled at Stanford. Down there on the Farm with all the rich kids, a scholarship student whose father was a grocery-store keeper in Duluth, and Jewish to boot. The one time I met your Ms. Rafael, she interested me. Any chance she might've done what Aguilar alleges?"

"I can't imagine her coming on to him. Or stealing his credit card in retaliation. But sometimes she does display a curious pattern of behavior."

"How so?"

"First, there's the shyness, which, as you say, comes off as standoffishness. On the other hand, in a professional situation she can be cool and assertive. But if someone says or does something—no matter how innocent—that she interprets as an ethnic, class, or gender slur, she'll lash out. I've had to warn her about that several times."

"Passive-aggressive," Glenn said.

"With a wide swath of middle ground."

"Quite interesting."

"As a case study, maybe, but not when my agency and career are threatened. If Aguilar goes to the Department of Consumer Affairs and lodges a complaint against us, it'll be expensive at best, disastrous at worst."

"DCA licenses you. And Julia."

"Only me. She's a trainee, hasn't put in the requisite number of hours to take the test."

"So you're the liable party."

"If they can prove I had knowledge of what she did."

"Which you didn't."

"No, but . . . Jesus, Glenn, you never know which way one of their hearings may go. I've heard horror stories. Their investigators just show up at your office—and not to ask if you're having a good day. They question you extensively and demand to see your files on the particular case, and if you resist turning them over, they return armed with a subpoena and the firm conviction that you must be guilty. Sometimes they even perform a general audit. If BSIS—Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, the people who control the licensing process—then deem the complaint valid, there's a hearing, whose results can range from a dismissal to the temporary or permanent loss of your license. Even if the complaint is dismissed, it's an all-around expensive proposition, involving lawyers' fees and court costs, to say nothing of damage to your reputation."

"Have you ever been involved in such proceedings?"

"No. During my early years in the business, when I was brash and took foolish risks, any number of complaints probably should've been lodged against me. But I was lucky. Now I keep to the straight and narrow, mostly, and insist my operatives do the same."

"Well, we'll worry about DCA later—if Aguilar even bothers to file a complaint. In the meantime, I'd better take myself down to the Hall of Justice."

"You think you can get Julia out of custody?"

"I doubt it. It's unlikely there'll be a duty judge on the weekend. But at least I can hear her side of the story, try to nose out what kind of evidence they have. Where will you be?"

"Here at the pier, I guess. I've got a lot of paperwork to finish up before the weekend."

"I'll see you there later, then."

After I replaced the receiver, I looked at my watch. It was five-fifteen, the time when Julia, a single mother, would normally be heading home to her young son, Tonio, or calling her sister, Sophia Cruz, to ask her to care for him. I should get in touch with Sophia, alert her to the situation.

I called the flat that Sophia and Julia rented together on Shotwell Street in the Mission district. The phone rang four times before Sophia picked up, sounding distraught.

"Sharon! Thank God!" she said. "I've been trying to get through to Jules for hours. All I got was the machine at the office, and her cell's not working."

Julia, like me, had a bad habit of forgetting to turn on her cellular, but why hadn't Ted or someone else picked up? "When did you call the office?"

"Around three-thirty, when the police came with the search warrant."

We'd all been in the meeting then, phones on the machine. "Did you leave a message?"

"No, I was too upset. The warrant, it was for the apartment and our storage bin. I had to let the police in, and they took a bunch of stuff away from the bin, gave me a receipt. All this stuff that I didn't even know was there, and I can't believe—"

Her words were spilling out breathlessly. I said, "Slow down, Sophia. What kind of stuff?"

"Unopened packages from mail-order places. Amazon. Lands' End. Nordstrom. Packages that had been opened, too. Computer stuff. Fancy outfits."

All items that could easily be bought with a stolen credit card.

"What's going on, Sharon?"

"You'd better brace yourself. Julia's been arrested." I told her what I knew of the charges.

Sophia was silent for a moment. Then she said, "She told you she didn't do it?"

"She told me she didn't know why she was being arrested."

More silence. Apparently I wasn't the only one who was having doubts about Julia's honesty. Now I felt the same reproach toward Sophia that Ted had displayed toward me.

"What?" I said. "You think she's guilty?"

"I don't want to think so. And the stealing isn't like Jules. Even when she was a teenager, turning tricks and dealing, she didn't steal. But the sex thing, coming on to the guy . . . For months now, since she and that Johnny broke up, Jules has been kind of down and sticking close to home. Then a few weeks ago she's off to the clubs, hot to trot and find herself another loser."

Julia had perfectly terrible taste in men, and Sophia rejoiced at the departure of each, while dreading the appearance of his replacement.

I said, "So you're suggesting she set her sights on Alex Aguilar?"

"Might've. I know she was excited when he asked her out to dinner. And she did say she might not come home that night, so I should watch out for Tonio. Not that I'm complaining. Jules has her needs."

I pictured Sophia: a plain woman in her early forties whose two children and husband were long gone from her life. She clerked at Safeway, played bingo at her church on Wednesday nights, and cared for Tonio. That was it, as far as I knew. But she was still young. Didn't she have needs, too?

"Well," I said, "I guess Tonio's your responsibility until bail can be arranged. Are you supposed to work tonight?"

"Yeah, but there's an old lady upstairs can take him."

Tonio was a bright, cheerful eight-year-old who did well in school and didn't seem to suffer from being shuffled off to the various caretakers who helped Julia and Sophia juggle their complicated schedules. All of us at the agency were fond of him and encouraged Julia to bring him to the pier when no one else was available to look after him. "If I can help in any way—"

"No, no. I got it under control."

After I replaced the receiver, I looked at my watch. The wheels at the Hall of Justice turned slowly. It might be hours till Glenn returned to tell me what he'd found out. I could read the Aguilar file. I could start plowing through the week's paperwork.

I could visit the mail room.

Because of the size of the pier and the number of tenants, a mail room had been established near the front entrance, to which the post office and parcel service delivery people had keys. Only one person from each firm had access to the room and made pickups. In our case, it was Ted.

I went along the catwalk to his bailiwick and found him seated behind his desk, working on a crossword puzzle. As long as I'd known him—going back to the days when he ruled the front office at All Souls Legal Cooperative—he'd been a crossword enthusiast, and now I wondered how many words he'd fitted into the little squares over the years.

"Why're you still here?" I asked. "It's Friday night."

"I'm waiting for Neal to pick me up for a weekend getaway to Monterey." Neal Osborn was Ted's life partner. "I've also been waiting for you to ask for the key to the mail room."

"Julia's sister said the police seized a lot of merchandise at their building. I have to know if there's more here."

"I understand. I've had a hard time resisting going down there myself." He stabbed his pen—the showoff always did his puzzles in ink—at the newsprint, then dropped it. "Let's see what's what."

The pier was Friday-night quiet. A light glowed in the offices of the architects on the opposite catwalk, but all the others were dark. Ted and I walked silently toward the mail room—actually a chain-link cage to the left of the pier's arching entrance. He worked the lock, opened the door, and flicked on the overhead light.

The room was divided into bins with shelves above them. Most of the bins were empty. Beside ours sat a couple of cases from Viking Office Supply. "Copy paper," Ted said. He leaned over them, reached into our bin, and grunted in surprise as he pulled out a Jiffy bag.

"What?" I asked.

He held out the bag so I could see. The return address was Coach Leatherworks. The recipient was Ms. Julia Rafael, c/o McCone Investigations.

"What should we do?" Ted whispered, in spite of there being no one to hear us.

"Put it back. That's all we can do. It's evidence. Put it back—and leave it there."

In the three hours before Glenn Solomon arrived at the pier, I read through the Aguilar file and completed my paperwork for the week, but my concentration wasn't all it should have been, and my thoughts kept turning to Julia.

Last year she'd responded to an ad I'd placed in the Chronicle for an investigative trainee, no experience necessary—the idea being that I could mold said individual to my own standards while paying a modest starting salary. The application she presented me was the most off-putting I'd ever seen, listing two incarcerations by the California Youth Authority for drug-related offenses and two firings from subsequent jobs, one by a close relative. On the plus side, she'd gotten her GED during her second stint with the Youth Authority and had a solid recommendation from the former director of a federally funded neighborhood outreach program where she'd worked for four years until the government pulled the plug on it.

In California, juvenile records are sealed in order to give the offender a fresh start, and it seemed strange that Julia would choose to reveal hers. When I questioned her about that, she said she feared her history might come out somewhere down the line, and thought it was best to be honest. During the rest of the interview I'd found her honesty to be brutal in the extreme, so brutal that I suspected she was working the angles. But jail time, even in a juvenile facility, teaches you a certain slyness, and it was an ability that would stand her in good stead as an investigator. In the end, mainly because none of my other applicants had standout qualifications, I hired her; she'd proved a fast learner and was also picking up on the interpersonal skills that would make her an asset to the agency. During the time she'd been a member of our little family—as we often referred to ourselves—she'd opened up, begun to trust in her growing friendships with us, become more confident. Now—

Glenn knocked on the door frame and came in. As he sat on one of the clients' chairs—which creaked under his weight—the set of his mouth was grim.

"It's bad?" I asked.

"It's bad."

Normally Glenn cut an imposing figure: tall and heavyset, with a lion's mane of silver-gray hair, he was always impeccably and expensively tailored, even in his most casual clothes. Although generous and kind to those close to him, he was capable of unleashing scathing sarcasm upon his opponents, and had a cobra's sense of when and how hard to strike. A man you would want as a friend, never as an enemy, and during the years he'd been throwing business my way, I'd learned to walk a fine line with him. Tonight, however, he was tired and looked nothing like the aggressive defense attorney whose thundering voice could quail prosecutors and their witnesses.

He slouched in the chair and ran his hand over his reddened eyes, then over the stubble on his chin. "God, I'd forgotten how much that jail depresses me," he said. "Normally I send one of my associates to handle the preliminaries."

"But you went for Julia."

"As I said on the phone, she interests me. Or maybe she reminds me that I come from humble roots, which is not a bad thing. And, of course, I'm concerned for you, my friend."

His words touched me. "Thank you."

"No need for thanks. Anyway, your Ms. Rafael: They're housing her in Jail Two, on the seventh floor of the Hall. High security, no bail until arraignment, and no visitors allowed except me, as her attorney."

"Why high security?"

"Because it's a high-profile case—involving a city supe—and because of 'behavioral problems.' Meaning she resisted arrest and is considered a flight risk."

"You speak with her?"

"Briefly. She claims that the arrest came as a total surprise. Says Aguilar took her to dinner at the conclusion of the investigation, and they parted on amicable terms. Denies making any sort of pass at him, or taking his credit card."

"You believe her?"

"I do. I've got a damned good internal shit detector. She strikes me as a very straightforward young woman."

"Maybe not as straightforward as she appears." I told him about the search and seizure at Sophia Cruz's apartment, and the package in our mail room.

He frowned. "Something's not right. I've never known my shit detector to go on the fritz. She claims she and her sister haven't gone into their storage bin at the apartment building in at least three months. I believe her. But by all indications the D.A.'s got a strong case. I'll know a little more tomorrow, after she's processed and I can take a look at the paperwork, but you'd better be prepared: a source close to the investigation, whom I happened to encounter in the men's room, tells me they have plenty of evidence—and that it leads straight back to your firm."

"Jesus. Because the packages they seized at her apartment house were sent here?"

"That's what I'd guess. Who brings them up from the mail room?"


On Sale
Jul 31, 2007
Page Count
304 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

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