Neighbors - Danielle Steel

Chapter 1

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.

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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