Laurel sat at the kitchen table eating a tuna sandwich and turning over the pages of her filofax. Angus lay sprawled across her lap, napping with his front legs stretched out and hanging into space.
"Just look at this," she complained. "We're booked solid through next week. We're doing a lunch at SGI. Then lunch at MetaExchange. Then a corporate retreat in Portola Valley. Then another lunch at Network Synergy Solutions. Then a dinner at some fat-cat cigar club at Filoli. I swear, Guerrilla Gourmet's completely out of control. If this keeps up we'll be turning away more business than we take in."
Liz, taking a break from the New York Times crossword, took the opportunity to kid her housemate. "See this?" she smirked, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together just below her chin. "World's smallest violin."
Laurel launched a cookie at Liz. The phone rang. Liz took a bite and picked up.
"Liz? It's Kiki. Do you have a minute?" Her voice sounded as if her head were packed with jello. Liz heard her cover the mouthpiece and blast out a sneeze.
"Oh, hi there. You don't sound very good. You need an emergency transfusion of chicken soup?"
Although Liz had only seen Kiki a few times in the weeks since their trip to Tassajara, the two women had developed a strong affection. As well as sharing a number of common interests and an off-kilter sense of humor, they also shared a certain private esprit de corps; they were, after all, partners in adversity, bonded by what they both jokingly and generically referred to as the "Barry Experience."
"Any more chicken soup and I'm going to lay an egg," Kiki sniffled. "But there is something else you can do for me. Actually, you're probably the only person who could do it for me. Can I beg a big favor?"
It was nothing like the usual kind of favor one might perform for a sick friend. The favor in question revolved around the execution of a property transaction. It was about as far from chicken soup as you could get: Kiki needed Liz to act as a courier and executor in a rather cryptic real estate deal. All Liz needed to do, Kiki explained, was to pick up some deeds and title documents, deliver them to an address in San Jose for a signature, and return them to an escrow office in Palo Alto.
Kiki's odd request raised a number of questions. Though Liz didn't want to seem unhelpful, she couldn't help asking at least a few of the more obvious ones. But Kiki's answers, vexingly, created even more mystery.
"Why me? Why all the cloak and dagger? Couldn't you just send it FedEx?" Liz had asked.
"Because it's kind of a delicate matter. And because I trust you, and I think the seller will, too. There are some tender feelings involved, and it requires a gentle touch. You're the gentlest person I know. " Kiki honked like a migrating water-bird. "I'd do it myself, if I weren't a raging river of phlegm. The seller is a sweet old man. You'll love him. But he never leaves the place. He just isn't a FedEx and e-mail kind of guy. He doesn't even have an answering machine."
Liz teetered, split between apprehension and intrigue, then acquiesced. "Well ... OK. As long as you're sure I won't mess things up."
"You won't," Kiki responded reassuringly. "Just be your usual kind and charming self."
"This isn't illegal or anything, is it?" Liz asked playfully.
"Oh, don't you worry. It's all for the greater good." Then, Kiki gave her the last and most tantalizing instruction: "And remember, all you need to tell him is this: I won't touch the trees."
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The next day Liz collected the documents from a realty office on University Avenue and drove out to an address in East San Jose.
The trip took her past dozens of tech companies housed in salt-box office parks rising out of asphalt parking lots shimmering in the heat. After only a few miles, Liz decided she'd uncovered the recipe for a high-tech startup: combine mega, cyber, tele or web with gen, net, com or sys, add buckets of money, bake in the sun and serve smoldering. Presto! Garnish with dot com.
Then, wedged between Meganet and Cybergen, Liz saw something she definitely hadn't anticipated: an apricot orchard on maybe a dozen acres, with a dirty mauve ranch house squatting like a shingled toad at the edge of the parkway. Liz could see it was her destination by the fading numbers on the mailbox.
The weather was hot, and this was the hottest part of the valley, so Liz was not surprised to see the main entrance guarded so casually by a single screen door. But she dared not knock; the door, flimsy and corroded, looked like it might fall off its hinges with little provocation.
There was no doorbell in evidence. "Hello? Anybody home?" she called out tentatively.
A stout, elderly Latino gentleman appeared from the dusky interior. "Hola." He smiled a broad smile, swinging out the screen door with one antique hand and holding out the other. "I'm Seqor Jorge."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Liz accepted his invitation to sit and have an iced tea. They sat across from each other at a dingy, orange formica table, drinking from ancient fountain glasses that spoke of thrift and the passage of time; Liz recognized them as gas-station giveaways from the dawn of her memory. Seqor Jorge had a sweet tooth; he loaded his with sugar.
Apparently, he didn't get many visitors. Shortly he was happily rambling away about the apricot business, fruit canneries, the history of his dwindling orchard and the big changes to his neighborhood over 47 years. He was happy for a sympathetic ear; maybe Kiki knew what she was doing after all.
"I love my trees. I don't want to sell them, but it's no good here for me," the farmer explained. "All the other land is bought up. I couldn't expand if I wanted to. And then there are the taxes. Besides, my kids and grandkids all move away. I want to be closer to them."
He eyed her a little cautiously. "You know the buyer, young lady?"
"Yes. I think I know her pretty well."
"And she doesn't own a computer company? She won't put up a lot of offices and fences and parking lots?"
"She says she's going to leave the trees right where they are."
He turned over his spoon and pursed his weather-beaten lips. "Well, that'd help me to sleep better nights, anyway." He smiled. "I hope she likes picking 'cots."
Sensing the opportunity, Liz handed him the folder of documents. The old man spread them out on the table, took a pen into his leathery fingers and signed where the realtor's yellow highlighter had indicated.
Liz, always compulsively curious, glanced at the documents as Seqor Jorge labored over his signatures. They listed the seller as "Jorge Diaz," as she would have anticipated. But where Liz had expected to see Kiki's name, she read only an enigmatic "Tejinder Preservation Foundation."
She was starting to get the idea that there was more to Kiki than met the eye.