Copyright 2014, Winifred Morris, all rights reserved

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PROLOGUE

   The woman’s voice comes through the headset: “You never listen to me! Why don’t you listen to me!”
   The man’s voice: “I heard you, hon. The deli’s out of Alfredo. I’m fine with quatre fromage.”
   “See! How do you do that! How can you!” This is the woman again.
   Next comes a lot of clanking and crashing, maybe the woman putting plates on the table but with far more force than necessary, and she shouts over the clattering plates, “Have you even bothered to look at our new garbage man!”
   “Come on, hon, you know I don’t swing that way.”
   Some violent ripping and sloshing. She’s serving the quatre fromage? “Well, if you’d looked, if you’d just look, you’d see he’s way too slick to be a real garbage man.”
  “You’ve got the hots for our garbage man. Think how that must hurt me, hon.”
  Smashing noises and a yelp. Now she’s throwing china at him? The special agent pulls the headset away from her ear and wonders how much longer she’s going to have to listen to this crap. She turns to the other agent in the tech room to ask, “Do we have a man on their garbage now?”
 
CHAPTER 1

   “I want to buy the Mud Springs place,” I tell Lester Bickle for maybe the hundredth time. He's an old guy with wispy white hair. Maybe his hearing is bad.

  “No bank will write a loan on that house,” he says, for maybe the two hundredth time.
  “You said Mrs. Miller will carry a contract,” I remind him.
  “True, but she wants a third down. And the house is not financeable for a number of good reasons. You should not only have it inspected, you should get an estimate of what it will cost to make the necessary repairs.”
   “I like it.”
   He shakes his head as if I’m a hopeless child. He almost makes me feel like a child, the way he keeps shaking his head and repeating himself. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been a child in the usual someone-is-there-to-take-care-of-you way, and now at thirty-seven, I’m way past the point where I can blame all my stupid mistakes on still being a kid.
   I have a kid who’s so grown up I don’t know where she is.
   “Then there’s the problem of the road,” he says.
   “I like the road too.”
   “It’s August.”
   No shit. I pull my blouse away from my chest and flap it to get some of the marginal A.C. in this dreary office to blow down my front. He turns about the same color as my fuchsia tube top. So maybe I do like to show a little cleavage—when you’ve got mousy thin hair and eyebrows that definitely don’t match, you’ve got to use what you’ve got—but you wouldn’t think skin as leathery as his could go so pink.
   At least this makes him quit trying to talk me out of the house I want—as if I don’t know my own mind.
   Okay, sometimes I don’t.
  He looks down at his gray steel Depression-era desk, and he keeps his eyes down. He says, “If you’re absolutely sure,” and lays a form in the center of that desk. He puts my name at the top.
   Except he doesn’t know my full name. He says, “Kiva . . .,” and when I don’t jump right in with what follows that, after what must seem to him plenty long enough to wait, cautiously, he looks up at me again.
   The problem is I haven’t yet decided on a name. “Phoenix,” I finally say. His knobby, vein-ribbed fingers still don’t move to write this down. So only movie stars get to have that name? Or any name is suspect if you take that long to remember who you are.
   I’ve always sucked at lying.
   But this is no time to start telling the truth. “I just got divorced.” Someone who just got divorced might be uncertain about her name.
   “I’m so sorry.” He sounds genuinely concerned.
   “You know, I think it’s for the best.”
   “Divorce is never a good thing. Marriage is a challenge, of course, but my wife and I, as the years go by, we’re so glad to be together as we age.”
   “Okay, I guess, but . . .” I really don’t need a lecture on true love. I’ve had enough problems with its much more common stand-in.
   “Is . . . is it final?” he asks. Throwing me. “Your divorce,” he helpfully adds.
   “Oh. Does it matter?”
   “Well, yes.” He sighs. “If it’s not final, then there’s always a chance. My daughter left her husband once, but in time they both came to appreciate the promises they’d made to each other.”
   So I am going to get a lecture on love. And here I’d thought this was one of my better lies.
   “Then there’s the matter of ownership. If your divorce isn’t final, you’ll need to talk to your lawyer before signing a contract like this. Also . . .” He sighs again. “There are a number of laws. Homeland Security, you know. At the time of closing your photo ID should match the name on the deed.”
   Now he has my attention. “Fine. Put down Sumner. The divorce is not . . . ” Do I dare admit this to such a believer in true love?    “I just left. I doubt my husband has even noticed I’m gone.”
   The craggy old face smiles benevolently. Lester Bickle is clearly relieved. “Then we’ll just put in a contingency about the cost of repairs. That should give you plenty of room to change your mind. And we’ll set the closing out as far as we can.” He looks down at his form again. “Let’s say at least ninety days?”
   “No!”
   Crap, I’ve caught a nail in one of my favorite scarves. In this heat I didn’t want anything around my neck or my hair, but I have a peacock’s train of royal blue and turquoise eyes tied around my waist, and I’ve been fiddling with it. Silk on my fingers is better than Xanax for me.
   Except now. “Mr. Bickle!”  He’s made me do some spastic jerk, ripping my nail half off, probably tearing a huge snag in the silk. “The house is vacant! I thought I could move right in!”
   “Please call me Les.”
   “I don’t have anywhere else to live!”
   “Dear, it always takes some time to finalize a real estate purchase. But if you don’t have anywhere else to live . . .” What with the “dear” and the “call me Les,” is he going to invite me home with him? So he and his terminally bored wife can teach me more about true love? “Mrs. Miller might be willing to rent you the house until the purchase goes through.”
   “Yes!” I can take a deep breath. I start unhooking my nail.
   “Then.” He finds another space to fill in on his form. “In regard to the earnest money you were going to put down today—”
   “Earnest money?” I’ve never bought a house before. I’ve never been able to buy a house before. The one I’ve been living in, Carlton bought, of course.
   “A deposit to show your commitment,” old Les explains. “What I’m thinking is, if you’re absolutely sure you won’t change your mind, even if you and your husband reconcile—which I truly hope you do—and you’d like to move in right away, you might make that deposit a bit larger than a person normally would.”
   “No problem.” I jump up. “I just need to run out to my car.”
   Outside, I hit a wall of heat. Waves of it shimmer off my Melbourne Red car making it look like a sunset mirage on this empty street where everything else—the plank-walled, wild-west-style tavern, the abandoned gas station, and the few stores that are clearly on their way to being abandoned—are gray, dirt-streaked, and peeling paint.
   I burn my hand opening the trunk. And this morning I had to pack while Carlton was out doing who knows what for no telling how long. With that kind of time pressure on me, standing in my wonderful walk-in closet with its banks of rods and drawers and baskets, all overflowing with the beautiful clothes I’ve bought over the past ten years—with Carlton’s money—how was I to decide what I would need to start a new life? Would I need any skirts or dresses? Which shoes!
   Much as I love my car, it’s only a two-seater, a little BMW Z4 coupe, so the trunk is stuffed, and now I have to get to the bottom of it. At least the trunk is connected to the front so I can toss things through to the seats. Of course, the passenger seat is already just as full as the trunk, in fact crammed with a sleeping bag and a Styrofoam cooler I had to buy on my way here.
   I just never thought I would need to get to the secret compartment so soon!
   But finally I’m going to live the life I’ve never had, a quiet safe life in a quiet safe home. I’ve left Carlton and his scary business. I’ve come to this wide open country I love, the dry side of Oregon — no high-rises, no shopping malls, hardly another car on these roads. I even found this realtor here in Broken Pine—a one-street town just past Postage Stamp, on the way to Bakeoven—who, once he figured out I wasn’t lost—at least not geographically—drove me around in his pickup truck and showed me the perfect place.
   It’s a classic farmhouse, big wide porch, pointy dormer over the porch. True, old Les has spent the rest of the afternoon trying to talk me out of that house, but I remember seeing houses like that go by the rear window of my parents’ Volkswagen bus, and I always wished I could live in one. I was sure people in houses like that knew what time it was. They knew when it was time to eat. They didn’t eat tofu.
   Eventually I reach the bottom of the trunk. I’ve cleared it enough that I can lift one edge of the panel BMW thoughtfully cut away in the floor. No telling why. There isn’t really a compartment under here. There’s only a red gas tank with maybe an inch between it and the floor of the trunk. The Germans came up with a lot of unusual extras—special little airbags for my knees? One of their engineers must have known I would need this secret spot.
   Carefully spread on that red gas tank are rows and rows of bills neatly bundled with rubber bands. Red and green, my own private Christmas. I don’t know how many of them I have. I don’t know how many I need, but counting them out here on the street doesn’t seem a good idea—even though there’s nobody around.
   There’s no one out here on these roads. There’s no one doing business in these shabby stores. Yes, this is exactly what I want.
I stuff a few bundles into my purse and let old Les do the counting, but he takes one look at all those hundreds, and his hands begin to shake. He gets a tick in one eye. He pulls down the clattering Venetian blinds to block the windows that face the street, deserted as it is, slides his chair closer to a gooseneck lamp, and, swallowing hard and fast, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down, he holds a bill up to the light.
   I get a flash of worry too. Could Carlton have taken some counterfeits? “I sold a car,” I say. “The man who bought it seemed really nice, so I didn’t ask him any questions.”
   By then old Les has so many twitches I’m wondering if I should have tried to find a younger realtor, in some other one-street town. If he collapses and I have to call 911, don’t the cops sometimes come too?
   Because I definitely understand stress. Recently we got a new garbage man who is actually slim. Then there have been these odd clicks on our phones, and a drab blue van has been parked on our street. No one in our neighborhood would drive such a stripped-down van.
   Luckily, Les makes it through those bills without a medical emergency. “This is a lot of money,” he says.
   “Good. I was hoping it was.”
   “There’s twenty thousand dollars here.”
   “Terrific.” And there’s still bundles and bundles of the stuff in my car.
   “What I’m trying to say is this is probably more than—”
   “So it’s enough? I can move in today?”
   His hands are still shaking as he puts the money in his safe and spins the lock a whole bunch of times. “I’m sure Mrs. Miller will be impressed by your commitment,”  he says.

   It’s quiet in the tech room that night. The headset is silent. The special agent is catching up on her paperwork.
   “No soap opera anymore,” she says when another agent comes in. “The wife split.”
   “Not unexpected,” says the other agent. “We can find her any time.”

Enjoy the first few pages of this comic page-turner

about love, drugs, family, and fleeing the law!

​​​by Winifred Morris

Of Mice and Money

Winifred Morris