“Excuse me, ma’am. Did you just say you were going to kill someone?” Madison Reynolds repeated the words to make certain she heard correctly.
“I certainly did,” the woman on the phone said emphatically. “And I meant it, too. I’ll kill that man dead if he thinks he can cheat on me after almost forty years of marriage!”
Madison closed her hazel eyes and issued a brief plea for patience. “Mrs. … Burton, did you say it was?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s right, George Gail Burton.”
“Mrs. Burton, I think you may have reached us in error. This is In a Pinch Temporary Services.”
“There’s no error. I’m in a pinch, and I want to hire you to find out the details of my husband’s torrid affair. He’s seeing some hussy from Naomi. That’s where all the trollops live, after all!”
“I take it you live in Juliet,” Madison murmured, trying not to take offense. Her best friend Genesis Baker lived in Naomi. The two towns, known commonly as The Sisters, were divided by a railroad track and a long history of rivalry.
“One of the first families to settle our fair city. And I’ll not have our family name sullied now, with the likes of that woman!” George Gail Burton spat.
“I’m tempted to ask who ‘that woman’ is, but I really am afraid you have the wrong impression about our company, Mrs. Burton. We’re a temp agency. We fill in when employers are left in a pinch.”
“I’m telling you, I’m in a pinch and it’s only going to be temporary, because if I find out that scalawag really is cheating on me, someone is going to wake up dead!” Her voice grew more shrill as she threw out the threat.
Madison tried once more to instill reason into the conversation. “I think you might be confusing our services with those of a private detective agency.”
“The only confusion here is whether or not you want to take my money. Lucy Ngyen said you charge one thousand dollars. Is that correct?”
“I’m afraid Mrs. Ngyen may have given you the wrong impression. That may have been what she paid, but-”
Before she could explain her pricing structure, the other woman broke in. “All right then, two thousand.”
Madison’s mouth fell open and her eyes went perfectly round. She sat up straighter, suddenly interested in what the woman had to say. “What- What is it you want me to do, Mrs. Burton?”
“I want proof. Proof that my Curtis is cheating on me. I want you to follow him, take notes of when and where they meet, snap off enough pictures so there’s no doubt to what they’re doing. I want hard evidence when I confront him and that two-bit hussy!”
Madison’s conscience warred with her avidity. She needed the money. Her gig at the car dealership was winding down and she had only a few odd jobs lined up. As long as Mrs. Burton understood she was not an official investigator and was merely performing amateur surveillance, surely there was no harm in taking the job.
Forcing herself not to be greedy, Madison pushed out a sigh and said, “Two thousand it too much, Mrs. Burton. Depending on the level of surveillance you desire, I’m sure one thousand dollars is more realistic. We’ll need to meet to sign a contract and discuss what you expect from me.”
“I expect you to clear the air, once and for all! After thirty-nine years, I know something is up with that man, and I plan to find out exactly what it is. Tell me when and where, and I’ll bring you your money. Is cash money acceptable?”
“Cash is good.”
“Where is your office?”
It was the first time Madison encountered the question and it left her momentarily confused on how to best answer. “Why don’t we meet somewhere neutral?” she finally countered.
“Good idea. Don’t want to tip our hand that I’ve hired you. We’ll meet out in public, and I’ll say I just wanted to shake the hand of the woman who single-handedly got Don Ngyen out of prison.”
“Chief deCordova might have some argument about that,” Madison protested. Not to mention that the accused Vietnamese man went no further than the River County jail.
“Katie Ngyen does my nails, and she says you’re the reason her brother-in-law was set free,” George Gail insisted. “The chief of police was satisfied to let him take the blame for killing Ronny Gleason, but you saw differently. You’re worth every penny you charge, Katie and Lucy say.”
“Oh. Uh, well, thank you.” Madison frowned at the odd compliment. In truth, she charged a very modest hourly rate, but Lucy Ngyen insisted on paying her one thousand dollars, and now it seemed George Gail Burton was prepared to do the same. Who was she to argue? Even though her new client could not see her, Madison shrugged. “Why don’t we meet at New Beginnings Café? I’m free today after noon.”
“Two o-clock, then?”
“Yes, that sounds fine.”
“Get a table and I’ll find you. And Mrs. Reynolds?”
“I really wouldn’t kill anyone, you know.”
Madison slid into a booth at New Beginnings a few minutes before two. There were only a handful of other customers scattered throughout the old building, but she chose a booth in the far corner to insure privacy. Shrugging out of her sweater, she tossed it on the seat beside her and waved to her best friend who stood behind the bakery display.
All the food served at the café was delicious, but the bakery items were undoubtedly the best. After years living away, Genesis came back to Naomi last summer and opened the restaurant with money she inherited from a previous employer. She re-vamped the old building so that it was a pleasant mix of old and new, created a menu every bit as eclectic, and dedicated one special corner to her love of baking.
Madison and Genesis first met and became best friends the summer of their eighth grade year, when Madison moved to Juliet to live with her grandmother. For the next four years, the girls were inseparable. They were even roommates at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Their lives followed different paths after that, but they remained close. Genesis took a break in traditional study and went to France to learn to be a pastry chef, while Madison stayed and earned her degree. As Genesis began a career that took her to exciting places and exclusive events, Madison met Grayson Reynolds and began a family. They both lived out their own personal version of a fairy tale life, until Madison’s marriage began to fall apart two years ago. Last November, the rest of her world crumbled when Gray was killed in an automobile accident and she discovered they were flat broke. She had little choice but to pack up her fifteen-year-old twins and move back home to Juliet. They were living with Granny Bert again, but she was trying to get back on her feet with her new business venture.
Genesis came forward with a small plate of cookies and placed it in front of Madison. “Compliments of the house. Maybe it will sweeten your deal.” When she grinned, charming dimples appeared in both cheeks.
“Thanks, Genny.” Madison gazed out the window beside her, which overlooked the parking spaces. “I don’t even know what George Gail Burton looks like.”
“Oh, about my size or a little larger. Shorter than you, maybe as tall as me. Short reddish blond hair she wears in tight curls. Like her personality, her make-up is usually pretty dramatic.”
Madison watched as a very plump woman got out of a late model SUV and paused to fluff her cap of sandy red curls. When she turned toward the café, Madison got a glimpse of vivid blue eye shadow. “I think that’s her,” she muttered. “That, or it’s the woman from that old Drew Carey sitcom.”
Genesis followed her friend’s gaze and confirmed George Gail’s identity. “Yep, that’s her.”
“Genesis Dawn Baker, you always accuse me of having the carnival mirror. If you think you are anywhere near the same size as that woman, you’re the one looking through distorted glass!”
Genny merely wrinkled her nose and moved away as the bell jingled above the café door.
At least George Gail Burton dressed more modestly than the sitcom character did, Madison noted. In contract to her dramatic makeup, the woman making her way toward the back of the building was dressed in a smart, demure pantsuit in dark navy.
“You must be the famous Madison Cessna Reynolds!” She beamed the words while she was still several feet away.
“Uhm, yes, I suppose so.” Madison peeped around self-consciously to see if anyone had overheard the ‘famous’ part. One nearby couple glanced her way and she saw Cutter Montgomery grin from where he perched at the bakery counter, but for the most part, no one was paying attention.
“I’ve heard all about you! May I join you?” George Gail continued to put on a show, just in case anyone watched.
It was a tight squeeze, but the woman wiggled into the booth seat across from Madison. “Think they bought it?” she whispered loudly, leaning her ample bosom over the tabletop. “Maybe I should ask for your autograph to make it more believable.”
Madison bit back a smile. Not a soul was looking their way. “I think we’re good. You did a good job pretending.”
“Why, thank you.” George Gail seemed genuinely pleased with Madison’s comment. “Actually, I did a little acting back in high school, but that was years before you came here. And I have a part in the church Christmas play every year.”
“So you graduated from The Sisters?”
“Class of ‘75,” she chirped with a big smile.
“And your husband?”
“The same. We were high school sweethearts. Actually, I knew back in the sixth grade that I was going to marry Curtis, even before Trudy Huffman and I went to see that fortuneteller at the State Fair in Dallas. It just took him a few years to figure it out and propose to me. Men can be dense like that, you know.”
“So you’ve been married for almost forty years and dated for several years before that. Why do you suspect that your husband is suddenly cheating on you, after all these years?”
George Gail’s double chin began to quiver. Tears welled in her eyes. Madison wondered if a river of blue eye shadow would pour down her face if she actually began to cry. “Because I found this.” She reached into her over-sized purse and pulled out a cell phone. She slid it across the table toward Madison. “Go on. Open it.”
With a bit of a frown, Madison hesitantly did as she was told. She worried for a moment about invading someone’s privacy, but George Gail sensed her reluctance and said, “Don’t worry; it’s in my name, so technically the phone is mine. I’m giving you permission to read the text messages.”
Madison swiped her finger across the bottom of the screen to unlock it. As she did so, a series of text messages popped up on the screen.
“Go on, read them. Just read what he and that hussy have been saying to one another!”
Does she know?
Not a clue.
When can we meet?
Our usual place?
Yes. Can’t wait to see your boobs.
Madison looked back up at George Gail. She had to admit, the messages did appear incriminating.
“Can you believe it? After I’ve given three children, my entire adult life and most of my childhood to that man, he goes off and has a torrid affair with that trollop!”
“What is it you would like me to do, Mrs. Burton?” Madison asked gently. It seemed fairly cut and dried to her.
“I just admitted my deepest, darkest secret to you. Please, call me George Gail. And I told you on the phone what I wanted. I want you to follow the weasel, get photographs and details. I want to flaunt it all in his face, just like he’s flaunting her in mine!”
“Who, exactly, is ‘her’?”
For the first time, George Gail seemed unsure of herself. She made a face as she admitted, “Well, I don’t really know. The number is blocked; text messages only.”
“Then how is he flaunting her in your face?” Madison wondered the thought aloud, just enough for the other woman to hear.
“It was a figure of speech. But I’m sure he’ll do just that, once their affair goes public! He’ll bring her to his family reunion and to all the ranch rodeo events, get her to ride on the Fourth of July Parade float with him, have their picture made together for Christmas pictures, do all the things he and I once did together.”
Before the woman could dissolve into a flood of tears and smeared makeup, Madison broke in. “I think you may be getting ahead of yourself, George Gail. You don’t even know for sure he’s having an affair, much less that he is going to go public with his mistress and ask you for a divorce.”
“Divorce! Who said anything about a divorce?”
“Well, uh, I, uh…” Madison stammered incoherently, realizing she had put her foot into her mouth with the thoughtless statement.
With a glum sigh, her companion propped her elbows onto the table and cradled her full cheeks. “I guess that’s to be expected, isn’t it? That’s the way it usually goes.”
“Honestly, George Gail, there could be a perfectly good explanation for all this.”
George Gail raised perfectly groomed eyebrows, stretching the blue shadow to new heights. “Really? Why else would they be meeting behind my back to look at her boobs?”
“Well, uh… your husband’s not a gynecologist by chance, is he?” Madison asked hopefully. “Or a plastic surgeon?”
“He’s part owner in the cattle auction in Naomi.”
“Yes, I heard they opened a new one off the highway,” Madison murmured with a nod.
“He’s partners with Jimmy Adams and your uncle, Joe Bert Cessna.”
A light of familiarity came to Madison’s eyes. “Okay, that’s where I’ve heard his name before. And you and Aunt Trudy are good friends.”
“We have been since first grade,” George Gail confirmed. “I’ve been too embarrassed to tell her about any of this.”
“Have there been any other clues? Has he been keeping odd hours, staying out late, that sort of thing?”
“If you know anything about the auction business, you know the hours are completely erratic. The sale starts at noon every Friday. If people bring in three hundred head, the sale is over by two that afternoon. If they bring in three thousand, the sale isn’t over until two the next morning. They often have special sales in the middle of the week or hold cattle over in the pens, so he spends a lot of time at the sale barn. Your uncle has his own ranch to run and Jimmy is the Ag teacher at school, so it’s Curtis’s responsibility to be at the barn most of the time.”
“Has he been … less attentive to you lately?” Madison phrased her question carefully.
“What? Oh, you mean… no, no!” A blush stained the other woman’s cheeks, causing a similar shade to invade Madison’s face. “My Curtis is a very amorous man. No change there.”
“So you are basing your assumption of an affair solely on these few text messages?”
With a huff, George Gail reached into her purse again. “You obviously won’t take me seriously, not until I’ve paid you. So here.” She slid a bank envelope across the table. “You count it. One thousand dollars, in cold, crisp cash.”
Madison opened the flap and glanced inside, noting several hundred-dollar bills.
“Didn’t you see the other messages on there?” George Gail demanded. She scrolled back through the phone, flashing the screen toward Madison with every offending message.
Like the pink behinds best.
Work the ride.
Hope we pull this off.
“There’s definitely some hanky-panky going on!” she declared. “You’ll take my case, right?”
“Again, I must caution you that I am not a private investigator.”
“Can you operate a camera?” George Gail asked in an exasperated tone.
“Yes, of course.”
“Can you take note of times and dates?”
“Can you drive a car?”
“Of course.” She did not technically own one, not since her late night rendezvous with an old pickup truck and a train, but she was driving a loaner from the dealership. As soon as her Uncle Glenn returned from his vacation, she planned to buy it. His return, of course, would mean the end of her job at Cessna Motors, but perhaps he would take the money in this envelope as the down payment.
“Then I don’t care what you call yourself. I just want you to follow my husband, see where he goes, who he meets at what time, and take photographic proof that he’s cheating on me. Can you or can you not do that?”
Madison could already think of a dozen things that could go wrong.
She could also think of a thousand things that could go right.
Slipping the envelope into her purse, Madison accepted the challenge in the other woman’s blue-shadowed eyes. “I can do that, George Gail,” she said with confidence. “First I’ll need a little more information, and you’ll need to sign this contract.”
Simple as that, In a Pinch Temporary Services had a new client.