Sneak Peek: Stiff Competition

March 11, 2016

Stiff Competition, Madison Cruz Mystery 3, is a bit different from the first two books in this series. Hot Scheming Mess is jammed with roughly equal parts action, and steamy encounters. Kill the Crazy is more intense on the mystery and impending danger, with a few hilarious sexy scenes on the side.

Stiff Competition then steps up to do the opposite by having a story tilting heavier on the sexy romance, and lighter on the mystery. Madison is faced with an important decision as a young adult woman trying to find her way in the world. Her crossroad in this story is common to women, but the choices each woman will make at that crossroad, is anyone’s guess.

Although I felt a bit guilty about going so light on the actual mystery portion of the story, I didn’t dare pass up the opportunity to show Madison’s growth, which I believe was significant in this story.

I’ve been hearing from multiple sources that Stiff Competition is not only the best one so far, it’s also the funniest one, too. But you decide for yourself.

Here’s a sneak peek at Stiff Competition.

 

Stiff Competition

Chapter 1

         “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” sang Madison, as she rehearsed in her car. Pursing her lips, she gave a sultry roll of her shoulder. The champagne blond wig tickled her skin and she felt her dangling rhinestone earring swinging. She turned left into the driveway of an elegant restaurant, driving up the parking aisle as twilight settled in. Tipping her chin upward, heavy lidded in her best Marilyn Monroe imitation, she blew a silent kiss then finished, “Happy birthday to you.”

Two lanky young men dashed out from behind a parked truck, running in front of her moving car.

She jammed on the brakes, clinging to the steering wheel as her body jerked forward to the short screech of brakes.

Wide-eyed and laughing, the one in the baggy sports jersey looked barely college-aged. He pushed his short-haired friend in a blue t-shirt, who didn’t look much older. The short-haired guy laughed and tried to hold his sports jersey friend back before he ran past him, racing to the front doors of the restaurant. Lost in their rough-housing, neither of them ever noticed Madison’s car. They disappeared inside the restaurant.

Slapping her hand over her heart, she collapsed backward into her seat. She took a deep breath and exhaled as she closed her green eyes, silently scolding herself for being too caught up in rehearsing her Marilyn character. For now she’d better just concentrate on being Madison Cruz and wait for her racing heart to slow down. She’d need time to compose herself and get back into character. Good thing she was early for the gig.

She drove around to the back, searching for the service entrance. When arriving for a singing telegram, or in this case, a singing telegram and roast, she preferred using the service door so the customers wouldn’t see her until she made her grand entrance.

She parked, then checked her makeup in the visor mirror. “Mr. President, honey,” she said in her breathy Marilyn voice. Making eyes in the mirror, she said “May I call you honey? I just love powerful men.” She added a touch more red lipstick, pressing her lips together to smooth the color. She loved these corporate gigs because they tipped so well and she usually drummed up more gigs from it. Phil, her agent, would be pleased.

One last read of the jokes she was supposed to deliver during the roast portion of tonight’s festivities, then she tucked the paper into her big black tote bag. Climbing out of the car, she felt the chill in the Fall air. Her white Marilyn halter dress left her bare shoulders and cleavage to fend for themselves. She put a warm loose hoodie on, hiked her tote bag up on her shoulder, and headed for the service door, her sexy high-heeled sandals clicking across the pavement.

At the service entrance, standing between big garbage dumpsters and a stack of empty pallets, she pressed a buzzer. Her toes were getting cold.

The door whipped open and a man in kitchen uniform froze as he stared at her. In his thirties, slightly balding, the man looked up and down her body, but without an ounce of appreciation. He looked left and right, covering the small back lot with his gaze before returning his attention to her. He dried his hands on his white apron. “What do you want?” he barked.

“I’m the actress they ordered for the corporate party,” said Madison, handing him her card. “My name is Madison Cruz.”

“What corporate party?”

“Eldun Industries. They’re surprising their president tonight at his birthday party.” She smiled, expecting understanding to dawn on his face.

“There’s no corporate party here.” He started to close the door.

Madison called out, “Wait.”

He stopped and gave her a moment.

“May I speak with the management, please?” When there are problems, Phil says, always go straight to the top.

“I’m the sous chef. That’s all the management you need and I have to get back to work.”

“But I have an event order.” She pulled the gig sheet from her tote bag, brandishing it at the sous chef. “See? Pluto’s Restaurant. The party is to be held in the Ficus room.”

His tension eased up but a new irritation replaced it. “Oh. That.” He looked her up and down again with a new scrutiny. He exhaled and seemed resigned. “Wait here.”

He slammed the door, leaving Madison standing in the darkening twilight. The chill had insinuated its way through her hoodie. Her toes felt like ice.

What the hell is his problem? she wondered. Pluto’s was an expensive restaurant. You had to be prepared to spend a chunk of your paycheck there, so she’d have thought their sous chef would be a little more polite. She looked around at the back lot of the restaurant. It always amazed her how nice restaurants never thought to clean the backside. The small grubby back lot was deserted, and added to her sense of being out of place.

Finally the door opened and a different man in a suit and tie greeted her. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting.” The light from the hallway behind him shone through his thin brown hair. “I’m Michael, the manager here at Pluto’s.” He extended his hand.

Madison shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Michael, I’m Madison.”

“Your hands are cold. Come in, come in.” He pushed the door all the way open so she could walk past. “Please forgive Carl. His workload is heavier than usual and he has a lot on his mind.”

She followed Michael through a narrow hallway that wound past a tiny employee break room, an office door labeled Manager, and through a side section of the kitchen. Heavenly smells, sizzling, and voices calling out menu items filled the kitchen. Every inch of space was in use.

Passing through, they finally stopped at a door at the end of the skinny hallway. Madison could hear muffled laughter coming from the other side of the door.

“The Ficus room is in here,” said the manager. “The servers use this door for delivering orders or bussing tables. The customers use a different door that leads to the open restaurant area. For obvious reasons you must use this door for your entrance and exits. Pluto’s is not accustomed to this sort of thing and the patrons mustn’t see you. I’m sure you understand.”

She didn’t understand. There was nothing scandalous about seeing a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. Most restaurants loved to let the other patrons see the fun going on. “No problem,” said Madison. “Is there somewhere I can leave my hoodie and tote bag? The only thing I’ll be carrying is the script of jokes.”

“Jokes?” Michael wrinkled his forehead.

“Yes, Eldun Industries is providing the music.”

He shook his head and murmured, “Things have certainly changed since I was a young guy.” He looked down the hall in thought. “All right. I can accommodate you in my office.” She followed him back down the hall, through the kitchen, out to the other hallway, and into the small office they had passed earlier. It was filled with boxes, a messy desk, and a few chairs. A battery-operated plastic clock ticked on the wall.

She set her things on a chair, dug through the tote bag, and pulled out her roast script, then folded it into a small fan she could use as a prop. “Marilyn Monroe is supposed to be introduced as a special guest,” she smiled. “My contact person is Betsy from HR. Can you let her know I’m ready?”

The manager blinked. “I doubt there’s a Betsy in there, but I’ll let them know you’re here. They’ll send someone for you.” He started for the door, then stopped and added, “Please, no warm-up for the kitchen staff. It would be much too distracting.”

Warm-up? What was he talking about? she wondered.

He turned and left.

*****

Her first warning was the smell. Heavy beer odors and the sharp scent of whiskey hit her nose as she entered the room. A young man in a club-style dress shirt escorted her through the crowd. She stayed in character as Marilyn, smiling, waving in the air to wild applause and frat boy party screams as she crossed the floor. Heavy after-shave assaulted her nose as she passed a young guy wearing a dress shirt that still had fold lines from the store package. She rolled her shoulders in sync with her hips as she sashayed to the front of the room, winking at random faces as she passed. In her breathy Marilyn voice, she said, “Oh my! Oh my goodness!” A t-shirted hipster lowered his sunglasses to look her over.

“Over here, sugar!” a man’s voice boomed, as she stopped, front and center at the head of the room. She placed her hands on her hips and threw her head back to shake her blond wig before bringing her chin down low, looking at them with sexy eyes. More applause and shouts; then the cheers died off and a hush slowly grew, all eyes on her.

Pointing into the crowd with her folded fan, she cooed, “Where is that darling little president man?” She giggled. “I’m looking for extra diamonds, ooh!” she said, adding a squeak at the end of the sentence. People always loved her Marilyn Monroe character, but something felt off tonight.

A voice from the back of the room shouted, “Take it off!” Applause started up again.

Ignoring the rude shout, she stayed in character. “Where’s that handsome birthday boy?” she asked cutely, as an inner dread began to grow. She put one red nailed finger to her lips as she looked around, using a coy smile to hide her confusion.

She did not like what she saw. Not one bit.

Everyone in the room was male. Maybe twenty or so, drunk young men. Where were the women? Where were the corporate suits? Where were the Happy Birthday signs and decorations?

“What are you waiting for?” a gruff voice shouted.

A cute young guy stepped up and asked, “Did you forget your music? Give me a second, I’ll hook you up. This’ll be perfect.”

Then her eyes fell on the two guys she’d almost hit in the parking lot, the one in a sports jersey and the blue t-shirt guy with short hair. Their drunken faces shone with adoration as they watched her every move.

Her fist crushed the script of roast jokes she’d folded into a fan. She was going to kill Phil.

“Hey!” A man snapped his fingers in front of her face. “You okay?”

She whipped her head toward him, her Marilyn character abandoned. “This isn’t Eldun Industries—” Throbbing club music started up, slamming into her ears, adding to her frustration.

“What?” he asked.

Madison repeated, “Eldun Industries.” She said, louder, “I was hired to—”

“Take it off, bitch!”

“Get started, or I’ll do it for you!”

She looked into the crowd, her fear growing. “This is a mistake,” she tried to say, looking left and right.

“We’re sick of waiting!”

“Shut up and let the lady do it her way!”

She braced herself, uncertain which direction to flee, frantically looking for the kindest face she could find. She darted to the guys from the parking lot. They may be drunk but they looked friendly. Okay, maybe the wrong kind of friendly, but she needed allies, fast.

The skinny guy in the sports jersey looked at her with a sleepy smile. “You’re beautiful,” he slurred. He looked at his short-haired friend next him. “Jay, I’m in love.”

She grabbed his arm and yanked him in the direction of the door, saying, “I want you.”

Jay burst into laughter, as the surrounding men roared their approval.

“Me?” His smile was ecstatic as he looked around at the other guys, showing off his good fortune, his chin held high. Hoots and back slaps rose up in support, with catcalls and applause as they crossed the room together.

“Yeah, Cliffy! You fuckin’ virgin, go for it!”

They’d almost made it to the door when a big guy stepped in front of them. Holding a glass of beer at waist level, he swayed, saying, “Wait a minute. We’ve been waiting for this all night. Where you going?”

“I have to deflower Cliffy, here,” said Madison.

“You have to…what?” His slow blink showed no comprehension.

She turned Cliffy around to face her, putting him between her and the big guy. She looked into Cliffy’s happy face as she patted his cheek gently. She said, “I’m so sorry.”

Then she put her hands on his chest and her foot behind his ankle. She shoved hard.

The crash and the laughter were both spectacular as Cliffy piled into the big man. Together they collapsed backwards into the table of food and drinks. It gave her the split second she needed to reach the door.

But it also ignited a chase.

Madison ran down the back hallway to the sounds of their footfalls on the hollow wooden floor. Their shouts and laughter indicated they thought this was a harmless game; but she knew that games have the potential to get out of hand. There was no way in hell she would wait to see which way it went.

She flew through the kitchen door and slammed headlong into Carl. The box he carried popped out of his arms, and small orangey colored mushrooms flew up and rained down on her head and all over the counters and floor. Carl stumbled back, crashing into a rack of pans. The entire kitchen staff froze in horror, more concerned with the sous chef’s reaction then the mess being made.

Only two of the guys had continued the chase all the way into the kitchen. Cliffy and Jay laughed so hard at Carl they could barely contain themselves. As they approached Madison she grabbed a wide knife from a nearby cutting table and aimed it in their direction.

“Whoa, whoa!” Jay looked genuinely confused. “We’re just having fun here.”

“She’s just playing,” said Cliffy. He smiled, his lids heavy. “You run fast.”

“What the hell is this?” shouted Carl, as Michael rushed in, surveying the mess and small wreckage. He looked at Cliffy and Jay with steel. The boys sobered up fast and ducked their heads, apologizing, making a swift retreat from the kitchen.

“You should get rid of those clowns, Michael,” growled Carl. “It’s not worth it.”

Michael nodded his head. “Yes, Chef.”

“Don’t call me that.” He slammed the box down on the cutting table, and stormed out.

Breathing heavily, her knife shaking in her hands, Madison fought with her conflicting instinct to keep her weapon brandished till she felt completely safe, versus feeling like an ass to be threatening people who didn’t know her and hadn’t done anything to her.

*****

“Phil, I swear I’m going to do you bodily harm,” said Madison into her phone, “if you don’t listen to what I’m saying.”

Her elbows on Michael’s desk, she leaned her forehead into her hand. Her dark silky hair hung forward onto the desk. The champagne blond Marilyn wig lay nearby on the messy desktop. She took some comfort in knowing that the manager kept his desk the same way she kept her closet. Her wig almost looked natural nestled in amongst computer cables, invoices, coffee cups, maps, and candy wrappers.

“If they’d been sober I could’ve explained things,” she insisted, her voice getting loud. “But the way it was, they scared me.” She slapped the desktop, demanding, “How did this happen?” Her chair squeaked in indignation.

“I don’t know!” he wailed into the phone. “Jen was supposed to go to Pluto’s, not you. I must’ve mixed up the addresses, somehow.”

“The manager’s hiding me in his office,” she said, “while he settles everything down.” She couldn’t believe the young men had been allowed to drink that much in such a nice restaurant. Most places would’ve cut them off before it got to that point.

Phil sounded frantic. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing over this debacle,” he said in his Boston street accent. “Your gig is the last problem I have right now.”

She sputtered, “Do you have any idea what I just went through? How can this be the last problem you have?”

“Think about it,” he said in a panic. “What’s worse than the disappointment of not getting the stripper you ordered?”

Madison couldn’t imagine at first, then it dawned on her.

“That’s right,” he said. “What’s worse, is getting a stripper you did not order.”

“Don’t tell me,” she said.

“Jen showed up at the corporate party for Eldun Industries, the ones who ordered Marilyn Monroe. And, well…Jen did what Jen does. No partial peel for her, she likes to go all the way.”

“Oh no…”

“They’re going to sue the pants right off my ass! I’m having a cardiac incident over this.”

“Oh, Phil!”

“I’d never knowingly do that to you, girl. And I sure as hell would never inflict Jen on an unsuspecting business crowd.”

“They’re mad over here, too. But so far it’s aimed at Cliffy and Jay, the guys who chased me into the kitchen.”

“I’m surprised Pluto’s hasn’t called me yet,” said Phil. “I gotta line up a lawyer. You’d better get out of there fast.”

 

Chapter 2

         A quick tap on the office door, and Michael came in carrying a bag. Madison immediately shut off her call with Phil, sitting up straight, trying to look pleasant.

“Are you all right?” he asked. His gaze traveled to the desktop. She snatched up her wig but knocked over an empty coffee cup.

“Sorry!” she said, quickly picking up the cup before any stray drops could touch the maps.

“No problem,” he said, calmly pulling the maps away. “You look much nicer as a dark brunette.”

“Thank you,” she said, smoothing her hair down, thinking of how crazy it must look right now.

He cleared a spot on the desk, saying, “I brought you something by way of an apology.”

She wondered, Did I hear him right?

“I packed some food for you,” he said, setting an elegant Pluto’s carry-out bag onto the desk. “In all the commotion you may not have eaten in a while. This is just an amuse bouche and an entree or two and some grilled sides with our house aioli, but I hope it conveys my apology.”

She stood up from the squeaky chair, looking into the bag of take-home boxes. The aromas of the kitchen rose from the bag. “Wow,” she said, instantly hungry. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“On the contrary, I wish I could do more to make up for your experience here tonight.”

“That’s so kind.” She looked up at him. “And thank you for understanding about me crashing into the kitchen like that. I was just scared.”

“All forgiven.”

“But I wish you hadn’t hurried me off so fast. I wanted to help clean the mess.”

“Carl knows where everything goes,” he said.

“At least it didn’t look like I broke anything. All I saw were mushrooms flying,” she chuckled.

He gave a small smile. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do,” he said.

She decided to take Phil’s advice and get out of there. “I, uh, I’d better get going,” she said, putting the blond wig in her tote bag.

She picked up the carry-out food, thanked him, and left.

*****

She took the exit off the freeway, and got stuck at a traffic light. Tapping her fingertips on the steering wheel, she watched the traffic. She’d been putting together a story in her head of how tonight’s fiasco went. She would say the evening went well; that the audience was charmed. They laughed and threw money. Okay, don’t go overboard, she thought. Just say they were charmed.

She’d say that she’s getting bored of the Marilyn character and was looking forward to bigger challenges. She had to sound upbeat about it.

Naturally, she didn’t want her mother, Ann, to find out what had happened. Ann worried too much about Madison as it was. But there was someone else who would make an even bigger deal about it. She sighed.

She dared not let her boyfriend, Jason, find out.

The car behind her honked. The light had changed. She accelerated, heading to her apartment, and wondered if she should pull over and call him, or wait till she got home. He’d be disappointed to hear that, on top of losing the first half of the evening with her due to the gig, now she wasn’t going to come over to his place afterward. But she truly was tired. With tonight’s disappointment still fresh on her mind, she didn’t want to have to keep her guard up about what happened at Pluto’s. But if she told him the truth about what happened, they would argue.

She wanted to go home and wear sloppy PJs and slippers, then fall asleep to black and white movies. It drove him crazy the way she’d fall asleep with the TV still on, and not turn it off till she woke up in the middle of the night. He once told her he had tried to stay awake one night, curious to see how long it would take her to wake up and turn it off, but he fell asleep and never found out.

She pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex, parked, then pulled out her phone. Staring at it in the dark, she realized this wasn’t going to be the first time she would lie to him about what happened during a gig. The last time she lied, it was because it was actually an audition instead of a paying gig. He didn’t like her going to auditions because she might actually get cast and then he’d see her less during rehearsals.

Exasperated, she let herself fall backward against the seat. This was getting ridiculous. She was falling into habits that weren’t good for either of them. It had to stop. As difficult as it was, she was going to have to tell him the truth, and he was going to have to deal with it.

It was too cold. She put the phone down while she sorted through her tote bag looking for her hoodie, but it wasn’t there. She remembered wearing it when she first arrived at Pluto’s. She must’ve left it in the manager’s office.

She sighed. Well, maybe being cold would force her to make the call short.

“Hi,” she said into the phone.

“Hey, Madness.” After hearing Madison’s mother call her Madness, he agreed the nickname fit. He’d been using it ever since. “Where are you?” asked Jason. “Is that corporate party over?”

“Yeah, it’s… that’s not why I’m calling actually.” She swallowed. She’d give him the details of the gig later. “I hate to disappoint you but I think I’d rather just stay home tonight. I’m so tired and I just want to fall asleep watching TV. Would you be all right with that?” She braced herself, but he surprised her.

He sighed. “Sure. I understand. I guess even singing happy birthday can wear a person out, huh?” he chuckled.

She resisted the urge to explain how so much more went into being a singing telegram than merely singing happy birthday. But she decided to accept his gracious response. “I’m…glad you understand. I’m going to eat something, watch TV, and pass out. It’ll be glorious for me, boring for you.”

He laughed. “No problem. I’ll pick you up tomorrow and we’ll get some lunch. I found this great little place—”

“I’m doing lunch with Spenser and Target tomorrow, remember? We’ve been planning this afternoon together for weeks.”

He was silent for a moment. “Tomorrow’s my only day off this week.”

“I know, but we agreed on this.”

“That was before you accepted the gig with the corporate party. You’d rather sing happy birthday than be with me.”

“It’s my job! I have bills to pay.”

“And as a result you’re too tired to come over tonight.”

She scrambled to find words. “Look…” She felt accused, but of what? It pissed her off. She took a breath, wanting out of this conversation. “I’m sorry, Jason. I didn’t plan it to go this way, but I’ll still see you tomorrow night. I’ll spend the afternoon with Spenser and Target, then I’ll meet you for—”

“I don’t understand how you live with the chaos of your job. We can never plan anything.”

The car was getting colder. She pulled her arms inward to hug her body. “Jason, I see you every other day, at the very least. We have jobs, friends, family…lots of things can come up. It’s natural.”

He sighed again. “I don’t want to get into this now. You get some sleep and we’ll talk later. All right?”

She had the sense that she was being handled as if she were the problem. But she agreed with one thing. She didn’t want to talk about it either.

After ending the call she made sure she had everything in her tote so she could make a quick run to her apartment.

Just then, she heard a familiar sound, a loud distinctive metal crunch, meaning someone was throwing out garbage. The landlord should fix the lid to the garbage bin, she thought. It sounded like a car accident every time people took out their garbage.

Getting out of her car, she hiked her tote bag onto her shoulder and grabbed the Pluto’s take- home boxes. Yum. She couldn’t wait to dig into those.

Cold and hungry, she hurried across the parking lot. Maybe this night wouldn’t be a total loss after all. She got excited at the thought of fuzzy slippers, black and white movies, food from Pluto’s….

The sound of a woman crying brought her up short. She stopped and looked around. A figure stood in the dark near the garbage bin.

Madison sighed. This was one of those moments when she had to make a judgment call. Did this woman need help, or did she need privacy? Should Madison mind her own business and go inside where it was warm? She waited a second, hoping for another hint. After a moment, she called out, “Are you all right?”

The woman turned her head. Under the street light Madison recognized the new neighbor from downstairs, short and curvy, with brown hair pulled up into a sloppy knot. She guessed her neighbor was older than she. Maybe thirties.

“I’m Madison,” she said, as she slowly approached the woman. “Your name’s Vivian, right?”

Vivian nodded, quickly wiping her face and eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be sorry. If you’d rather have privacy you just tell me, but if you need help,” Madison shrugged, “I’m here.

Vivian gave a short quiet laugh. “I’m an idiot. Normal people cry in their house. But not me.” She lifted her arms and let them fall to her sides. “I have to cry outside.”

Madison gave her a soft smile in response. “Hard night, huh?”

“You could say that.” Vivian bent to pick up a sack, hefting it into the garbage bin. “I was fine till I had to throw out the garbage. It felt symbolic.”

Madison adjusted the tote bag straps on her shoulder. “Of what?”

“My love life.” Vivian closed the garbage bin. Its metallic slam and crunch made Madison wince. Vivian continued, “My ex-boyfriend came by earlier today. He smashed a few things just because he knew I liked them.”

Madison barely knew this woman, but her heart broke for her. “Jerk,” she said.

“Yeah. He’s a jerk.” Vivian sniffed, pulling a tissue from her jacket pocket and wiping her nose. “But you know what? It feels good to take out the garbage. Good riddance.” She looked at Madison with concern. “You’re shaking. Let’s get inside the building.”

“I’d love that,” said Madison, grateful to get out of the cold.

Inside, as they walked along the hallway of the ground floor, Vivian shoved her tissue back into her jacket pocket. “Thanks for stopping to see how I am.”

“I didn’t know if you needed help or not,” said Madison.

“I didn’t know either. But I guess I simply needed someone to talk to,” Vivian sighed. “It did help. It’ll make the rest of it easier.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

“Cleaning the mess he made when I left for the store. I’ll be up pretty late.”

“He did it while you were gone?”

Vivian nodded. “He drives a red car. I’ve been seeing it around here a lot, and he knew exactly what to break. He must’ve been waiting for me to leave.”

“How did he get in?”

“I’m not sure. I thought I’d locked the door but the windows look untouched.”

Madison came to the stairwell that led to her apartment on the second floor as Vivian arrived at the door of her apartment.

With her hand on the rail, Madison looked back at Vivian. “Did I already mention he was a

jerk?”

“I’m liking you more and more,” said Vivian.

*****

Luxury! Strutting around in her fuzzy slippers and sloppy PJs, she wanted to hug every pillow in the house. She removed all her Marilyn makeup and gave her hair a vigorous brushing, which always felt good after a bout of wig wearing. Finding a small orangey mushroom in her cleavage when she removed her Marilyn costume was embarrassing, but she was pretty sure no one saw it. In spite of her trim figure, her cleavage was enough to hide more than one mushroom.

She cleared the couch of old gig sheets, mail, and laundry, then threw a cozy blanket down on it. Turning on her small television, she set it to an old movie channel, wondering what black and white delights awaited her. Grabbing her favorite pillow, she bounced it off her face a few times in a solitaire pillow fight before sailing it up and over to land on the couch. Tonight would be epic!

Entering her tiny kitchen, she kept an eye on the television from over the counter. Peeking inside the take home boxes that the manager of Pluto’s had packed for her, she inspected each one. Hearing voices from the television, she turned to look. A woman had pulled a gun on a private eye, but he laughed. “You think I won’t?” asked the woman. “I think you could,” said the man. “That’s what I like about you.”

Madison plunged a fork into the first box. What the hell? Who ever heard of draping a sunny-side egg on top of asparagus? But when she ate the first bite, flavors burst like fireworks onto her tongue: char from the grill deepened the earthy asparagus flavor, while the fatty yolk balanced against the bitterness. A touch of stone ground mustard and a peppery hint of fresh arugula embraced a shred of sweet red bell pepper. She stared at the box in happy disbelief, and thought the whole fiasco of the gig tonight was almost worth it. This was profoundly delicious!

The movie voices went silent as the soundtrack music swelled. Madison turned to see the TV couple in a dramatic kiss. She sighed.

She suddenly had an idea that caused her mood to spike even higher on the happy meter. She decided to surprise Vivian with her bounty of Pluto’s take home boxes. Vivian said she’d be up late anyway, and there was enough food here to feed three people. She figured Vivian could probably use the distraction. They would feast on fine cuisine!

She closed the boxes and put them back in the bag. She grabbed forks, spoons, and napkins and dropped them into the Pluto’s bag, then headed out into the corridor. Downstairs, she knocked on Vivian’s door.

Vivian opened the door looking tired and confused. She held the doorknob in one hand, a broom in the other. Her eyes traveled over Madison’s PJs and fuzzy slippers while she nodded, saying, “I love your wardrobe.”

“I bring tidings of great joy.” Madison held up the bag. “Or at least great scarfing. I’ve decided in my superior wisdom that you need to help me eat this. It’s from Pluto’s and it’s so good you’re going to die. We’re both going to die with smiles.”

Vivian blinked. “Uh…”

Madison lowered the bag. “Are you hungry?”

“Well…” Vivian exhaled with a rueful smile. “I’m always hungry. That’s not the problem.” She looked over her shoulder and back at Madison. “Come in. See for yourself.”

Madison followed her into the apartment. Her eyes widened as she looked around. Vivian’s apartment was the identical floor plan to her own apartment, but no one had come in and messed it up like this. This was sad.

Vivian closed the door behind her and said, “Uh, please excuse the mess?”

“Oh my God.” Madison stared.

Vivian sighed, stretching her back. “I’ve picked up most of it, but I’m wearing out.”

There were trash bags sitting nearby, no doubt waiting to be taken out. A dustpan filled with

debris sat on the kitchen floor. Pieces of broken dishes were on the counters, but also in odd places like a desk or on a chair cushion, as if plates had been hurled against the wall to shatter in flying pieces. A white powder ran in a wide swath across the carpet and onto Vivian’s couch. An empty flour bag nearby told what the white powder must be. A wooden chair on its side was missing a leg, which was wedged into the broken glass door of a bookcase. Tomatoes had been flung at the ceiling, leaving orangey splotches above them, while a sad iron lay on the counter, useless because its cord had been ripped off.

Madison gasped as the thoroughness of it sank in. “Vivian. You called the police, right?” She whirled and looked at Vivian’s exhausted face.

Vivian turned away. “No. And please don’t tell the landlord.” She resumed sweeping in the kitchen.

“You should call the police!”

Vivian shook her head vigorously. “My standing with the landlord is delicate already.” She looked at Madison. “My credit rating is bad but he took a chance on me. Russell knows that and he did this to get me kicked out.” She gripped the broom handle. “I’m not going to let him win.”

“The landlord wouldn’t evict you just because you were vandalized,” said Madison.

Bent over, Vivian carefully swept more tiny pieces into the dustpan. “No, but if he thinks I attract a bad element he might find a different excuse.”

“But—”

“Please.” Vivian stood up straight, pleading with her eyes. “I want to stay here.”

Watching Vivian, Madison’s own problems seemed to shrink. Uncertain of what to say, she finally put the Pluto’s bag down and gave Vivian a hard hug.

“Promise me?” asked Vivian.

“I promise.”

They broke the hug. “In fact,” said Madison, “I’ll help you fix it so the landlord will never know.” She looked around. “Where should I start?

“Are you kidding?” Vivian leaned the broom against the kitchen counter. “I just had this crazy girl come to my door in her pajamas, offering to feed me. I’m not going to pass up that offer.” She smiled and nodded at the bag. “Show me what you brought.”

“Well,” Madison started, “you’ll never believe what—”

A metallic rattling at the doorknob interrupted them. In a tiny voice, Vivian said, “How did he get a key?” The fear in Vivian’s eyes told Madison who it must be.

The door slammed open.

 

 

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