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Peaches and the Gambler 20


  Not so now.

  Everywhere she went, there were at least a half dozen people ahead of her waiting to be interviewed for the same low-level position.

  For the first time, the precariousness of her jobless position was keenly felt. Investigating Lenny’s murder had provided a buffer from the reality of her unemployed status. But now that she was on investigational hiatus, her situation pressed down on her with a vengeance.

  So she decided to do something she had never done before, to venture out on a limb and live on the wild side…

  …she would apply to a temp agency.

  **

  Walking down a long carpeted hallway with generic landscape prints hung on cream colored walls, Peaches searched for the office of Landmark Temporary Agency. She found it moments later. Its tagline promised Boundless Employment Opportunities Are Just Around the Corner. In this case they were at the end of the hall.

  Pushing a cheap, oak veneer door open, a dour looking middle-aged receptionist with penciled-in eyebrows and skin so tan it crackled, looked up and grimaced, unhappy to add one more applicant to the crowd that was already crammed into the tiny room.

  “You got an appointment?” she barked when Peaches approached, her nasal tone steeped in annoyance.

  “Well, I think--,” Peaches began.

  “You ain’t got an appointment, you gotta come back,” she interrupted. “Already too many appointments booked as it is.” She cast a sour eye over the many hopeful faces of the unemployed.

  “I believe I do have an appointment,” Peaches said, wondering why rude people always seemed to be in charge of customer service.

  “Name,” she grunted, a furrow in her pencil thin brow.

  “Peaches Donnelly.”

  Muttering irritably about management overbooking appointments, she hit some keys on her computers keyboard, then frowned deeply.

  “Looks like you are on the list, sweetheart.” She attempted a smile that got lost somewhere in the bronze creases surrounding her mouth. “Let me get a copy of your I.D and Social Security card. You’ll have to take a skills test so the agency can see what they’re workin’ with.”

  “How long is that going to take?” Peaches asked, gazing in trepidation at the at least twenty people squeezed into miniscule plastic chairs around the room.

  “We only got one computer workin’ right now. The other two were supposed to get fixed weeks ago, but here we are,” she said, waving a ruby taloned hand at the heavens above and in the general vicinity of the shuttered offices beyond. “Gonna be at least two hours.”

  “Two hours?” Peaches repeated, aghast.

  “You can always come back some other day?” the receptionist suggested hopefully.

  Looking around, Peaches was sorely tempted to do just that. She felt exhausted just thinking about the wait. There was nothing to be done for it. There was no guarantee that if she came another day the wait wouldn’t be just as long.

  “No—I’ll just be patient and wait.”

  Her response clearly didn’t please the taciturn receptionist. Her face fell back into the same dour displeased-with-the-world lines.

  “Go figure,” she groused. “Social Security card and I.D. please. If you got any felonies you might as well turn around and walk back out the door. We only allow minor infractions not the whole kit and kaboodle.”

  The young man who had walked in behind her, heard those words and skulked disconsolately out the door, resume flapping by his side.

  “Good,” the receptionist said as the door slammed shut. “Just made my job a lot easier.”

  Peaches really didn’t like this woman.

  After handing over her resume and identification cards, she was told to wait until she was called.

  Wedging herself between a large woman in a tight pantsuit and a snoozing man whose wide open legs were taking up two thirds of the bench space, Peaches tried to make herself comfortable, in for the long haul.

  **

  After thumbing through every US Today, People Magazine, and Parenthood; then moving on to The Wall Street Journal--the last stop in popular media skid row--more than three hours later, Peaches name was finally called.

  Feeling like she was being led to the land of milk and honey, a slim woman in a pale blue pencil skirt and white blouse led her to a cramped room with flickering halogen strip lighting and a computer dated from the days of Methuselah.

  “You’ll be taking skill tests in the Microsoft Suite of programs as well as being tested on your typing speed and accuracy,” the woman was saying in a wispy southern accent. “You will have thirty minutes per program to complete questions. Your time starts after you’re done with the five minute practice test for each program. You may start whenever you like.”

  With a slight smile, she gently closed the door behind her.

  This was her forte. After years of doing administration assisting, bookkeeping and administrative management, it should be a piece of cake.

  Famous last words.

  **

  What the hell did ‘justify’ mean? What thumbnail meant you were clicking on a reviewing pane? Would one find ‘Bullets and Numbering’ under ‘Tools’ or under ‘Format’?

  Questions like this popped up throughout each program test and Peaches found herself desperately using all the time down to the last second.

  The terminology each of the programs used was mysterious and arcane. Using the programs themselves was easy. She could make her spreadsheets dance and her reports sing a song, but ask her to name the functions of each program and she was stumped.

  Her scores were far lower than she would have hoped for. Distressingly so. The last time she had seen a seventy-five she had been sitting in Mrs. Miller’s tortuous high school Geometry class.

  Shit.

  With palpitating heart, she finished the last test, Excel, with a grim seventy-nine.

  She still had an impressive resume with more than ten years of experience. That should count for far more than these ridiculous skill tests.

  **

  “Hmmm.”

  Working hard to remain confident despite her low test scores, Peaches wilted beneath the judgmental glare of Elizabeth Hawthorne, the very attractive young redhead seated behind the astronomically large desk.

  Peaches, by comparison, was seated in a low slung modern affair with no arms. She had no idea what to do with her hands so she kept them clamped over her kneecaps, where they continuously slid down over her shins.

  “After seeing your fantastic resume I am very surprised to see such very low test scores.” She looked down at Peaches, her long silky hair framed by the multitude of impressive degrees and training certificates hanging on the wall behind her desk.

  “Yes. So am I,” Peaches muttered.

  “What do you think went wrong?”

  “I’m not certain. But my resume speaks for itself. As you see here--,”

  “Yes, I do see,” the redhead coolly interjected, her cornflower blue eyes flickering. “However, our clients like scores to be over eighty percent. Your overall score is at seventy-eight, that just won’t do.”

  Peaches swallowed back a retort that went something like: ‘You high-handed, tow-headed, broad! Did you even glance at my qualifications? Why don’t you stuff your skills test up your tight ass!”

  The red headed vixen snapped her fingers, smiling. “I have the perfect job for you.”

  “Already?” Peaches asked. Wow. Maybe her scores hadn’t worked against her as badly as she thought.

  “Already. It’s the perfect job to get you into the groove of things here at Landmark. Can you start on Monday?” she asked, in a tone that already suggested she would and could.

  “Sure.”

  “The pay is eleven dollars an hour and the assignment lasts for two weeks. More if they like you,” she said with a light peal of laughter.

  Eleven paltry dollars an hour? Peaches had gotten paid more than double that at her last job. But, she sharply reminded herself, sh
e wasn’t at her last job. She was jobless.

  In keeping with her resolution to keep her job qualifications sharp and on the ready, she stilled her initial negative response, nodding her head.

  “Sounds…great,” she choked out.

  “Fantastic!” She stood up; dangling her fingertips in what Peaches guessed was meant to be an offer of a handshake. She shook it. It felt like a limp fish. “Welcome to Landmark where boundless opportunities await!”

  Yeah, right.

  **

  “I see they roped you into the magnet factory assignment,” the dour faced receptionist harrumphed, looking over Peaches file on the computer screen.

  What did she mean by ‘roped her in’?

  “The magnet factory?” Peaches asked.

  The receptionist, whom Peaches learned was named Daisy, shook her head in an almost sympathetic fashion.

  “It’s better you see then I tell you. Have a nice day.”

  With those words ringing ominously in her ears, Peaches left the offices of Landmark Employment Agency with her very first temp assignment.

  Chapter 29

  A shot, followed by a loud curse, rang out in the cool wooded silence of the forest on the outskirts of Roanoke Rapids. The distant roar of the rapids, never far away, could be heard trickling through the trees.

  “Dammit!”

  Carefully engaging the safety, Peaches dejectedly dropped her arm to her side.

  “Daddy, I’m a terrible shot,” she fretted.

  “That’s why you’re out here, Peaches. To get better at shooting. Now me-,” he took quick aim at the make-shift bulls eye he had set up on the pine a short distance away, shooting in quick succession and hitting the board each time. “—I’m good ‘cause I always practice.”

  “You didn’t hit the bull’s eye,” she grumbled.

  “Nope. But I got that sucker center mass and that’s all that matters,” he said, grinning.

  “Bully for you,” she said, sarcastically.

  “Don’t be like that, Peaches,” her father said, laughing.

  “Maybe I’m just no good at this.”

  “You just need practice.” Engaging the safety on his gun, he put it back in its hip holster. “Did you know there were race riots back in 1898 in Wilmington?” She shook her head. “Of course not. That’s why I talk to you about these things. You need to read more,” he admonished. “The riot was stirred up by white Democratic leaders scared the local black leadership was getting a little to powerful. The Democratic Party wasn’t always what it is today. Though many would have you believe it was.”

  “Daddy,” she said, rolling her eyes in his direction. “You should be helping me aim this darned gun, not telling me about your latest historical find. Not unless it’s going to protect me against intruders.”

  They had been target shooting for nearly an hour with the .45 her father had left in the pantry. She hit the target twice in the first twenty minutes. After that, it had been too far below, too far above or in the bushes. There was probably some poor deer limping around right now because of her wild shooting.

  “Just aim like this--,” her father said, adjusting her arm. “Put your right leg out to steady yourself, keep your shot in mind and shoot.”

  Releasing the safety and lifting her arm, she squeezed the trigger, finally managing to hit the target on its outer perimeter.

  “See—you’re getting better.”

  “So, have you heard from Viviana?” she asked, squeezing off a few more shots.

  “She Facebooked me.”

  “Oh. About your Facebook,” Peaches said, turning to face her father. “Why is it that I heard you had a Facebook profile through Stick?”

  “That ain’t true, Peaches. I told you ‘bout it, you were just too busy with your life to remember.”

  “That’s not true!” she denied, hotly. “I always make time for you, Daddy. And hell, being forced to listen to you go on and on about your history stuff means I’m doing double overtime.”

  “Umm-hmm. Well, your sister Facebook’s me all the time,” her father said, smugly.

  “That’s ‘cause most of the time she’s too lazy or cowardly to call,” she muttered, rankling at her father’s none to subtle suggestion that her sister was more attentive to his needs than she was. Which was of course completely untrue.

  Thoroughly annoyed, she squeezed off another quick succession of shots. This time, her aim was dead on.

  “No. Nothing like that,” her father said, defending Viviana as he always did. “Said she was busy preparing for her new gig. Just got contracted to be the lead in Madame Butterfly.”

  “Uh-huh. Preparing for the lead in an opera is not a twenty-four hour a day endeavor, Daddy.” She squeezed the trigger. Dead on again. Maybe all she’d needed was to hear Viviana’s name to become a crack shot.

  “She told me all the negative publicity was a good thing. Got an offer to star in a movie next year. Her agents negotiating the contract right now.”

  “Well…good...for…her!”

  Taking a shot with each word, Peaches was grimly satisfied to see that each bullet struck its target squarely in the center.

  **

  “Just the person I wanted to see!” Ms. Penny said.

  Funny, she was just the person Peaches had been trying to avoid.

  She smiled as she and her father got out of the car. She had hoped to duck Ms. Penny. She didn’t have much information for her and since she had decided to lay off on the case for a bit, she didn’t want to disappoint her with the news.

  But it looked like it couldn’t be avoided.

  “Hi, Ms. Penny. How are you?” She walked over to hug her.

  “Doin’, okay. Just taking it day by day,” she said, briskly. “How you doin’, Mitch?” she asked, calling over to her father.

  “Doin’ good,” he said, pausing on his way up the porch steps. “Just worked up an appetite doin’ target practice with Peaches. About to fix me a sandwich.”

  They waved their good bye’s and Ms. Penny bustled inside, coming back with two tall glasses of iced tea, one of which she handed to Peaches, settling her ample hips into a lawn chair.

  “Now, tell me what’s been going on so far?”

  Peaches filled Ms. Penny in on all the details of what she had discovered. She thought about leaving her excursion to the strip club out of the equation to spare Ms. Penny any unsavory details. Instead, she just left out the prostitution scene, an event that was still far too fresh in her mind.

  “Well, you’re doing an amazing job, Peaches,” Ms. Penny said, admiration in her eyes. “The police didn’t find out half of what you have so far.”

  “They probably have,” Peaches demurred, unwilling to take more credit than she deserved. “They just didn’t tell you. They like to keep some information private just in case the killer gets wind of an important detail.”

  “Maybe, but I didn’t think you would be able to find out as much as you have. It’s wonderful.”

  Peaches remained silent, draining the rest of her glass. Ms. Penny’s words were surprising. She hadn’t thought she was doing enough. “Tell me, did you know Lenny won twelve thousand dollars playing sweepstakes?”

  “I didn’t know anything about it,” she said, shaking her head. “One of my neighbor’s spends most of her Social Security check playin’ sweepstakes,” she said, grimacing. “Now she gotta work at the local Wal-Mart as a greeter to make ends meet.”

  “That’s a shame.”

  “It really is. But what happened to all that money? I don’t remember Cynthia mentioning it and much as that woman loves money, she would have.”

  “I don’t know,” Peaches said, slowly. “That’s what I’ve been curious about.”

  “Listen,” she said, her eyes glistening with tears. “I really appreciate what you’re doin, Peaches. With all the hard work you’re puttin’ in, I have no doubt in my mind that you will find out who did this to Lenny.”

  Opening her mouth,
Peaches tried to find the words to tell Ms. Penny that she had agreed to let the case drop for the time being. But seeing the naked hope shining forth from Ms. Penny’s eyes, she just couldn’t do it. She couldn’t let her down.

  And just like that, she was back on the case.

  Chapter 30

  “Here goes nothing.”

  Peaches took a deep breath, closed her eyes, pushed her tits up as high as they would go in her industrial strength push-up and swayed her hips through the doors of Satin Dolls.

  She barely heard the loud thumping of the music blaring forth from huge speakers beside the stage, so nervous was she. A few girls were warming up onstage, loosening up their muscles before their performances later on that evening. She recognized the girl who had winked at her during her last visit. She was dressed in leggings and a half shirt, stretching out her legs the way a professional dancer might.

  It was barely six o’clock. The club wouldn’t open until seven. Peaches was hoping to get hired right away and flash the picture of Lenny around she had tucked down in purse.

  The dramatic green and silver eye make-up and platinum wig Charm had masterminded gave her the extra confidence she needed to go through with this admittedly insane undercover assignment.

  ‘Damn, girl. Nobody’ll recognize you’

  Charm’s words came floating back to Peaches as she nervously glided up to Security Giant Number Two, the massive fellow who had broken up the small skirmish between her and the young ass grabbing aficionado’s.

  She hoped like hell what Charm said was true.

  “My name’s Mona. Heard ya’ll were hirin’?” she said, hand on hip, vigorously chewing on the wad of gum she had stuck in her mouth earlier.

  Instead of answering her question, he said: “Management don’t like the girls chewin’ gum while they workin’ If I was you, I’d spit that out before you get interviewed.”

  Snatching a napkin from behind the bar, she spit her gum out, tossing it in the garbage.

  “That better?” she asked, jauntily raising an eyebrow.

  “Much. Also, you might need to tone the attitude down a bit. Don’t no man like a stripper with an attitude. ‘Specially not management.”

  My goodness. Peaches never would have guessed strip clubs had such high standards of quality.

  Sighing, she leaned against the bar, waiting while Security Giant Number Two/The Quality Control Engineer, made a call from the phone behind the bar, supposedly to management.