The massive stone mansion was hot even in the basement, as Debbie Speck bustled around the large, efficient kitchen, putting away the groceries that her husband, Jack, had just brought in. He was perspiring profusely. He was forty-four years old, somewhat overweight, with balding dark hair, and always reeked of aftershave that covered the faintly boozy smell of the cheap scotch he kept in his room and drank at night. It came through his pores the next day, when he exerted himself. Debbie usually joined him with a drink or two at night. She preferred gin and tonic or vodka she kept in the freezer in the basement apartment where their employer, Meredith White, never ventured. She respected their privacy, which was ideal for them. Debbie was also heavy and dyed her hair blond herself.
They had been employed as property managers and live-in housekeeping couple by the famously reclusive, now retired movie star, for the past fifteen years. Meredith had still been working when she hired them. She was going from one movie to the next, frequently on location, and her husband, Scott Price, actor and producer, did the same. Sometimes they were apart for months, working on separate movies.
It was the perfect job for Jack and Debbie, working for often absentee employers in an immense, luxurious home, where at least one of their employers was away most of the time, and busy when they were home. They didn’t have time to supervise Jack and Debbie too closely and trusted them. They’d been young then, just twenty-nine, but already knew the hidden benefits of that kind of job. The perks felt like plucking ripe fruit from the trees. The stores and workmen they patronized for whatever their employers needed kicked back handsome commissions to them or provided services which were free to them, but unknowingly paid for by their employer, when bills were padded by dishonest suppliers. And there were plenty of those, as Jack and Debbie knew well. They had set up a whole network of profitable relationships within months of starting the job. It was common practice and Jack and Debbie had no qualms about ripping off their employers. They had done it before. They selected their employers by how profitable they would be, and how busy, distracted, or absent they were.
Meredith had been one of the most highly paid actresses in the business when Jack and Debbie took the job, and she was generous with them. In the beginning, they occasionally had to drive her thirteen-year-old son, Justin, somewhere, but there were tutors to keep an eye on him and a young graduate student who stayed at the house and drove Justin to school when both his parents were away. His parents took care of him themselves when either one of them was at home. Their daughter, Kendall, had gone to college in New York seven years before and never came back to live in San Francisco. She was twenty-five years old when Debbie and Jack took the job, and she only came home for Christmas. She was married and had Julia, a little girl of her own, by then. Meredith and Scott were away so much it was hard to find a good time to see them when they weren’t busy.
It was a perfect situation for Jack and Debbie. The mother-in-law apartment they were given had a separate entrance and was attractively furnished. The house was in Pacific Heights, the best residential neighborhood in San Francisco, and it was the biggest house in town. Working for two big movie stars was prestigious, and profitable for them. Meredith and Scott had moved to San Francisco when their son was born, and their daughter was twelve years old. They didn’t want to bring up another child in L.A., Meredith had told them. San Francisco was a smaller, conservative, wholesome city, with great schools for Justin and Kendall, good weather year-round, and the house and grounds gave them space and privacy, behind the tall hedge they had planted when they bought the house.
Over the years, Debbie and Jack had taken full advantage of all the benefits of their job. They had an impressive nest egg saved up from the many years of commissions. A few treasures had also found their way into their apartment, particularly two very valuable small French paintings, which had disappeared from the main part of the house, and had hung in their bedroom for a dozen years now. Meredith had never noticed their disappearance. Debbie liked them so she “relocated” them to their quarters. In addition, Meredith had a bank account dedicated to paying household expenses. Debbie had volunteered years before to pay those bills and relieved Meredith of the tediousness of it. Debbie deposited small amounts to her own. The amounts were so minor that even Meredith’s accountant hadn’t questioned them. Debbie and Jack were clever thieves.
Jack and Debbie were attentive to their employers’ every need, and appeared to be deeply sympathetic and kind when Meredith’s life fell apart fourteen years before. Her golden world unraveled rapidly after they arrived and lay in ashes at her feet within less than a year. It had made her less cautious about her accounts, and easily distracted.
Fourteen years before, Meredith’s husband, Scott, had had a highly publicized affair with a young Italian actress who was starring in a movie with him. She was twenty-seven, and he was more than twice her age at fifty-five. His marriage to Meredith had seemed solid, when Jack and Debbie took the job. They seemed unusually stable for people in show business. They were devoted to each other and their children, from what Jack and Debbie had observed, and then Scott left for location in Bangkok for a picture. By the time he came back, their marriage was a shambles. Once he was home, he left Meredith for Silvana Rossi, and moved to New York with her.
Meredith had been deeply wounded by the betrayal, but kept a brave face on for her children. Jack and Debbie were surprised that they never heard her maligning Scott to their son, but Debbie saw her crying alone in her bedroom more than once, and put her arms around her and gave her a warm hug.
Humiliated by the stories about Scott and Silvana in the tabloids, Meredith stopped having any kind of social life, rarely went out, and turned her full attention to her son, driving him to school and sports practices, spending time with him, having dinner with him every night. Debbie overheard her turning down a movie she’d been offered. Meredith wanted to be at home with her son until the excitement over the scandal of the separation died down. Justin was very upset. He talked to Jack about it, and flew to New York to see his father several times. He came back every time saying how much he hated his soon-to-be stepmother. Scott was planning to marry her as soon as the divorce was final. At fourteen, Justin had called her a cheap whore when confiding in Jack about her, which Jack had reported to Debbie. Justin had said that his older sister, Kendall, didn’t like her either. Jack and Debbie hardly knew Kendall, since she had moved to New York before they arrived.
Meredith refrained from talking about Silvana with Debbie. She was a dignified, discreet, respectful woman, although Debbie guessed that Meredith must have hated the young Italian starlet, and Scott was hell-bent on a divorce. Their previously, seemingly happy marriage had evaporated into thin air. Meredith put her massive career on pause, to spend all her time with her son. Although Debbie didn’t know her well at the time, she admired her for it.
Jack and Debbie had no children of their own. They had worked in Palm Springs for an elderly couple, both of whom had died within months of each other. Jack and Debbie had met in rehab in San Diego two years before getting that job. They had both grown up in Southern California, but never met. He had had a number of arrests for petty crimes, mostly credit card fraud to support his drug habit. Debbie had been prosecuted for shoplifting, petty theft, stolen credit cards, and possession of marijuana with intent to sell. The courts had sent them to the same rehab program. They were both twenty-two at the time and spent six months there. While in rehab, they formulated a plan to work together, which ultimately turned into love, or harnessing their ambitions to the same wagon. They got married because they could get better jobs that way, as property manager and housekeeper, as a couple. Jack had suggested that working for rich people in their homes could be lucrative, and a rare opportunity for grander schemes in future. Debbie was adamant that she didn’t want to be a maid, scrub toilets, or wear a uniform, and he explained that as property managers, they would have the run of people’s fancy homes. They could do whatever they wanted, hire other people to clean toilets, the house, do the gardening, and skim a nice living off the top. They could even pocket a few valuables while their employers were away, blame someone else, and steal some cash, and at the same time earn a handsome salary for living well in someone else’s home. He made it sound so appealing that they tried it when they got out of rehab. They went to a reputable employment agency in L.A. with fake references Jack had written for them, on stationery he had made, allegedly written by a couple who had died, leaving no heirs to check their story with. The agency was cavalier about checking references and did no criminal check, unless the client requested it.
Copyright © 2021 by Danielle Steel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.