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Excerpt from: Cook The Books

Chapter 1

Juanita Wills sat at her desk in the office of the Wyndham, Oklahoma, public library, lost in a daydream about toasting Mavis Ralston, her second-in-command, like a marshmallow over an open fire. Mavis had triggered a new round earlier that day in the ongoing battle of the assistant librarians by insisting the shades be kept drawn in the genealogy section in the mornings. True to the assistants’ tradition of reflexively opposing each other’s opinions, Calvin Meador had objected.

“Makes that area too gloomy, Mavis,” he had complained, his doughy body sagging against a partition that surrounded a study alcove in the reading room. Besides, the sun’s rays don’t even reach those shelves. They can’t be fading book covers.”

“The angle changes,” Mavis had retorted as she slapped a book onto a shelving cart, her bony frame held ramrod straight. “If we don’t get in the habit of closing those shades, we’ll forget to do it later, when it will matter.”

“Juanita,” Meador had whined, “make Mavis leave those shades open, can’t you?”

Juanita had sighed with irritation, thinking that at least the petty quarrel had happened with no patrons around to witness it, and made her ruling.

“Leave the shades open for now. We’ll see where the sunlight moves to later.”

Mavis’s disposition had been marginally frostier since that decision, though the change was barely detectable on her permanent crust of ice. Too bad the older woman’s tireless work ethic made it impossible to fire her, Juanita thought for the thousandth time.

As she swiveled from desk to worktable, Juanita saw Tracy Marie Riek trudge across the reading room, her curvy frame rigid with tension, her pretty features twisted in a scowl. Nodding to Mavis as she circled behind the circulation desk, Tracy Marie entered the head librarian’s office.

“I’m going to kill my lame-brained husband,” she announced, dumping her backpack on the floor and plopping into a chair at the worktable. Usually, she looked younger than her 26 years with her lively green eyes, pert nose, and mouth lifting at the corners. However, her lips curved downward now.

“Mmm.” Juanita leaned back in her chair, ready to hear Bobby Riek’s latest exploit. Her training as a literacy tutor had stressed that the lives of adult learners (the Wyndham Literacy Council’s preferred term for its clients) were often complicated and stressful. Learners frequently needed wind-down time before beginning a lesson. Tracy Marie’s unburdening usually involved the man with whom she shared a home and two young children.

“Bobby hasn’t a clue about money,” the young woman went on now, her lithe body taut with annoyance. “When we made up last time, we swore we wouldn’t buy nothing we didn’t absolutely have to have, till we’re outa debt.” Karate chops at the desk emphasized the last four words.

Tracy Marie wasn’t quite done, though. She glared at Juanita. “Know what the fool brought home yesterday?”

Juanita shook her head.

“A fancy red teddy. Obviously expensive.”

Juanita had to smile. “In your size or his?”

Tracy Marie frowned, then shook her head as she got the joke. “Has to’ve been his buddy Larry’s idea. Larry Volker thinks he’s God’s gift—has these odd notions about what women want. Bobby went for this particular bad idea, I’m sure, because he feels guilty over hitting on somebody at work.”

The waters were getting murky now. “Bobby made a pass at someone? And you know this, how?”

“An old school friend of mind, Deidre Briggs, works in the office out there, and she saw in his personnel file that I’m his wife. She called and told me how he’s acting around this one woman employee. Bobby didn’t know Deidre and I knew each other, so he didn’t hide his behavior around her.”

“Really. And you and Deidre had kept in touch since your school days together?”

“Hadn’t see her since I dropped out in ninth grade. She was in the same class as me till I got yanked out and put in Special Ed. But she remembered me and said she hated to see Bobby wasn’t doing right by me. Deidre’s been over several times since then, brought presents for my kids, watched TV with me.”

Juanita sighed to herself. Some things just didn’t show up in her job description. Like all the relationship counseling. “Well now, it’s surely nice to reconnect with someone after a few years and find you still have things in common, isn’t it? But she might be reading more into your husband’s behavior than is actually there. Some flirting’s fairly harmless.”

“Yeah, I know. It don’t usually bother me for Bobby to wink and grin at other women, ‘cause I know how he is. But from what Deidre says, it’s more’n that with this one woman—Vicky Voss—“ Tracy Marie pursed her lips and rolled her eyes. “Bobby and her hangs around each other at breaks. And Deidre saw ‘em walk off into the bushes behind the warehouse one day, when she was back there catching a smoke. Somebody called Deidre in to answer a question, so she didn’t see how long they stayed gone. You gotta admit that’s suspicious, them going into the bushes together?”

Juanita shrugged. “Okay, that doesn’t look great. But it isn’t proof of anything.”

“Well, they’ll have to find someplace else to meet if Bobby loses his job.”

“His company still cutting back?”

Tracy Marie nodded. “One’a the other warehouse guys, Pete Unger, got the sack yesterday. He’s claiming he was laid off, but Bobby says Pete really got fired for stealing stuff outa the warehouse. FIY has laid off several others lately, though, so it’s scary.”

Bobby Riek worked as a fork-lift operator at Fix-It-Yourself Warehouse, a big-box store located at the edge of Wyndham, while Tracy Marie worked for a company that cleaned offices evenings and Saturdays. She liked her schedule because it allowed her and Bobby to divide child-care responsibilities and let her meet with Juanita for reading sessions two afternoons a week. Tracy Marie’s sister and a neighbor also helped with child care.

“Has Bobby any ideas where to get another job if the lay-off hits him?”

A man with no education beyond high school was somewhat limited in opportunities around Wyndham. The area’s largest employers were Wyndham Community College and several Native-American-owned casinos. However, the casinos typically gave hiring preference to Indian applicants, which seemed fair to Juanita since discrimination often went the other way for that ethnic group. Beyond that, a few small manufacturers and light industrial companies offered possibilities, as did retail establishments, oil production, farming, and cattle ranching. But Juanita doubted Bobby Riek could prove a Native American heritage or had work experience in most of the other employment areas.

Tracy Marie shook her comely head. “He won’t talk about it. Just says we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it.” She thrust her fists into her navy hoodie. “We were about to see daylight on our debt, too. Couple more months, we’d’a had the Bronco paid off, then could catch up the mortgage…” Her voice trailed off. “I’m sick of making up stories to tell the bank, like ‘the check got lost in the mail,’ or ‘one of the kids hid the checkbook….’”

“The bank’s probably heard all the excuses for late payments, you know,” Juanita said gently. “I doubt you can come up with a new one.”

Tracy Marie frowned. “I have to say something when bill collectors call.”

“Why not tell them the truth? Say you’re struggling financially but will have a big bill paid off in two months and can then pay more on your mortgage, or whatever bill they’re calling about. Lots of companies will work with you if they think you’re being straight with them.”

“Maybe.” Tracy Marie stared thoughtfully at the wall behind Juanita. “After getting the mortgage squared away, we coulda thought about trading for a better car. But if we have to live on just my salary…”

The young woman’s small chin jutted out, and the green eyes flashed. “Sometimes I could strangle that man.”