I received a call from Randy Smith of the sheriff's department, "Hey Jack, I've got a crash for you just beyond three mile curve. Some stupid ass woman hit the guard rails when the tire blew. All four tires are bald so no wonder. Anyway I cited her and told her you would be picking up the car. She is sitting in it. There are other things I'm sure I could find wrong with the vehicle, but I feel a little sorry for her. I have another call so she gets off this time."
I could hear him accelerate since his radio was still on. "She hurt?"
"She have any money?"
"I didn't ask." Randy laughed. He was a friend, but thought it a joke if I got stuck with someone not paying the towing charge. This was possibly one of these times. He poured it on. "You and those two other guys with wreckers take turns. That's in your contract. Your turn to pick up this one."
"How bad is the car? Is it worth anything?"
"It's junk. You might get $50 salvage out of it."
"Great, my charge is $115."
"Hey, you have a wrecker and you wanted the business. You had better use the car carrier or you'll be scattering pieces all the way home."
I was a widower, losing my wife two years ago. I owned a junk yard and wrecking service and hired three full time workers in the business. I was tall, good looking and kept myself well. Jamie, my wife, and I had purchased the business from my father the year I turned twenty-five. At that time we lived in a little cottage behind the junk yard. When my folks moved out west, I bought their house and Jamie and I moved into it.
I had always worked at the yard. It paid well and there were always interesting vehicles coming in from the wide area that we serviced. Sometimes a car would come in that was totaled for insurance purposes, but was fixable. I partnered with an auto body shop to fix these up. Some of the older muscle cars, if they weren't in too bad shape, I put them up on blocks and threw a canvas over them. They were lined up along the fences that surrounded the property. The property consisted of a little over twenty-five acres. This was a sizable operation.
With the wrecking service you could be called out all hours of the night to go pick up a vehicle that was in an accident or broken down. Thankfully this one was daytime and didn't have anyone injured. I had seen some horrible sights over the years from deaths and destruction of these accidents. Many accidents were so preventable, if people had just used their brains and paid attention.
I didn't hurry. I had seven miles to go up and three back before I could get into the lane the vehicle was in. Then it was four miles back to my yard. I pulled around the car and tilted the flatbed. I went about hooking up the winch to pull it up onto the carrier. The woman sat in the driver's seat and didn't get out. She looked resigned to what happened as if she couldn't expect otherwise so I went about the chore just glancing the woman's way. I had to move the car quickly as Randy had left cones in front and back as a warning there was an obstacle on the side of the road.
When I was hooked up, but before I winched it, I told her she had to get out of her car. "No passenger can ride in the car while on the bed. Get in the cab. This won't take long." She still didn't say anything. I just knew she didn't have any money.
I was right. When I was all set to go, I climbed into the cab. She sat way over next to the door. Her first words were, "I don't have any money to pay you. That damned sheriff cited me and I'm supposed to appear to pay by Friday morning. I guess I'm headed to jail."
"Where are you staying?"
"I'm sleeping in the car."
"You might have been up until now, but I lock up the yard at night. You can't stay there. Too late to hitch-hike from here today, too. Where were you headed anyway?"
"I have an Aunt Mary, who lives about thirty miles south of here. I was hoping I had enough gas to get there. If I ran out, I would have coasted to the side of the road and left the damned piece of junk. Oh well, I almost made it."
"Where are you from?"
"A hundred miles back up the highway."
I named a small city of twenty thousand about that far away. She nodded that was where she was from. I had watched her when she walked around her car and got into the wrecker. She looked to be about my age of thirty-five. Her clothes weren't that bad as they fit pretty well and weren't too worn out. I would guess she was five feet, five inches tall. She had brown hair, a decent shape, nothing spectacular, but attractive. Maybe she was just a person down on her luck.
"What's your name?"
"Nora, Nora Roberts."
"Oh yeah, you write novels."
"Not that Nora. I'm the broke, the just divorced, just lost my kids and my home, Nora Roberts."
"That's probably more than I need to know."
"All men are curious when they meet a woman down on her luck. You've been asking one question after another since you came. I doubt you will stop."
"Against men too, I take it?"
"I knew it, another question, but that I can answer. Yes, I am against some men. My former husband especially. He didn't leave me with anything. No money, I'm barred from seeing my two boys, and he called me a prostitute. I'm not and I believe I was set up, but I couldn't prove that I am innocent. He would never listen to me." She paused, and then continued, "But then you are a man and you have no reason to believe me."
"All of us aren't like that." I had to defend my gender.
"May be, but I was married to one who was."
We pulled into my wrecking yard. I got my clip board and filled out the bill for picking up Nora's car. I handed it to her, $115.00. She looked at it and started taking off her blouse. "What are you doing?"
"I told you I don't have any money. The only thing I have is my body so you'll have to use it until the bill is paid."
She looked at me. I could tell she was hoping I would refuse her offer. "You are quite attractive, and I'd probably enjoy getting paid that way, but I'd rather have you pay me in some other form."
"Let's make a business deal out of this. I need my house cleaned. It will take you a week or longer. I'll pay you $60 a day and room and board and I'll allow you $40 for your junk car. If we go forward with this deal, I'll take you to a nice restaurant for dinner tonight."
"Does that go on my bill as well?" I shook my head, no. "How many rooms are in your house?"
"Eight not including the two bathrooms. There are things in the yard that you could do too if you are so inclined."
"Will you pay my citation on Friday?"
"Sure, but that comes out of your pay."
"I'll have a room of my own?"
"Do I cook for you?"
"Yes, especially that."
"Do I have to sleep with you?"
"No, you don't have to."
"So you say. I feel there is a 'but' in there somewhere isn't there?"
"I suppose there is, but it is more hope than anything. I wouldn't demand that you do." I was hoping, but this made me uncomfortable. "We can leave here now. I need a shower and we'll get changed to go out."
"Jack, I'm going to take the deal. It is the best I can do in the present situation. You just might restore my faith in men. Not all of them, but some. I'm at the point where I have to trust someone. I do pay my bills when I am able and this will be the way I can." She reached over and shook my hand.
"How did you know my name?"
"Jack Spangler, of Spangler Wrecking Company. It is on your bill and on the door of the wrecker."
"Nora, do you want to call someone to tell them where you are and who you are with?"
"No, for some reason I trust you and we shook on it. That's good enough for me." Nora had made a snap judgment about me. I would prove she wasn't mistaken.
My home was pretty unkempt. The lawn needed mowing and the flowers my wife took such pride in were grown up with weeds and the flowers had all but disappeared. One shutter had come loose on the house and I was going to fix that. That was six months ago, but I would get to it yet. When we went inside Nora walked around looking at everything. I did work at keeping the kitchen and one bathroom up because that is where I spent most of the time at home. I used one bedroom, but I used a sleeping bag on top of the spread to sleep in.
I informed Nora I was going to take my shower, "You may want to use this one after I get out. I don't know what shape the other one is in." I came out of the shower and stumbled over a pile of linen in the hallway. This included the sleeping bag. My bed must be made up and I was going to be sleeping between sheets tonight.
Nora came down the hall with a towel around her. "I found sheets. I made your bed. You didn't expect to sleep in that fart sack when there are clean sheets around and a woman to put them on your bed did you?" Hey, I think I am going to like this business deal I made. I had more out of it already than I expected. I wasn't going to press for more, not yet anyway. Who knows I might even get the house cleaned before Nora wanted to move on?
It had been two years since my wife of thirteen years had passed away. I had come to grips with the fact that I had one love and that would be my allotment in this lifetime. I didn't take life too seriously after I had arrived at that decision. I wondered if the woman I had picked up today hadn't come to a like decision and looked on life the same way I was. I hadn't seen any tears yet, but they might come.
Nora had on a different blouse and slacks when I next saw her. She looked really neat. This was going to be strange for me, but I was looking forward to be with this woman. I asked, "What and where for dinner? There is a beef house, and a fish house. You can get chicken in both."
"Fish I think. I used to serve it at home when my husband wasn't home. He didn't like it at all. I used to fish with my grandfather many years ago before he died. I miss him and I miss the fresh caught fish. A lot of people don't like to smell it cooking, but I do. I make a fish chowder to die for." In the back of my mind fresh caught fish was going to be on my plate some day.
In the restaurant while waiting for our meal, I asked, "Do you want to talk about your life? You must have taken a horrible hit from your husband to leave you in the situation I found you in today."
"I'll tell you all about it sometime. What happened has been a horrible experience and it kept getting worse as time went on. Let's just say I think that I was set up and my husband wanted to get rid of me so he could marry another woman. I think he set out to ruin me, my reputation, and take all the esteem a normal person needs to hold her head up. At least he didn't have the balls to kill me. The other woman possibly would have if she could have.
"Can we enjoy this meal now? I'm thinking so far, I don't mind being in debt to you."
When we got home, we watched a show on the History Channel and then I got ready for bed. "Go to bed, Jack. I'll make up the room across the hall."
It had been two years since I had a woman in my bed. It was pure laziness on my part. I wasn't that bad looking and I cleaned up good even if I did run a junk yard. My wife had insisted I change my work clothes every day and I continued even though she wasn't here to see that I did.
I liked my hair short and I had it trimmed every two weeks into a flat top. I did own my own business and I got hit on often enough, but no woman so far could compare to the wife I still missed. Not one in my bed tonight either, but I had a feeling.
Nora for some unknown reason, appealed to me. Maybe because she had it rough and needed a shoulder to cry on. She hadn't yet, cried I mean, but I felt she was right on the edge.
She was asleep when I woke at 5:30, my time to get up. I went down and made coffee. I came back upstairs and got dressed. I stepped into her room. Her eyes were now open looking at me. "Coffee is done or you can sleep in. I'm crunching cars this morning and have extra help so I have to be at the yard by seven. There is a car in the garage with the keys in it."
I dug out my wallet. "Here is a couple hundred dollars. Would you get some groceries and anything you need if you do cleaning? The store is two streets over and down a block on the left. I'll have lunch at the yard, but if you are still here I would look forward to a home cooked meal."
"What would you like?"
"Surprise me. I'll eat anything." I turned and went downstairs. Five minutes later she came down. She had on one of my wife's robes that had been hanging in the closet. She looked natural in it and I didn't mind at all. I said, "Sit and I'll take time for coffee with you."
"I should have been up and made the coffee."
"You can tomorrow morning. You will know where everything is by then."
"You didn't have a chance to eat this morning either."
"I'll catch something on the way in. We can eat together tomorrow morning unless you like sleeping in."
"No, I'm a morning person. I always needed to get my two boys ready for school."
Tears appeared suddenly. The first I had seen since I had met this woman. I just stuck out my arms and she came into them. She hid her face in my shoulder and sobbed a little. She reached up, wiped her eyes and backed away. "You must think I'm a baby?"
"No, I understand. Kiss me and I'm off." I had no idea why I said this. But that is how I left Jamie every day when I headed for work. I was only going to peck her on the cheek, but I received a real kiss on the lips, albeit quick. I smiled down at her and turned to the door. She was standing in the open door when I swung into my pickup. I waved and she waved back.
I could barely keep my mind on my work. I didn't know this woman, but I certainly was attracted to her. She said she was labeled as a whore, but wasn't. How could that be? If she had lost custody of her two sons, she must have done something damned serious. She didn't seem to be hiding it. I just hadn't had time to learn what it was.
I came home and showered immediately. Whatever was cooking for supper smelled delicious? I changed into shorts, a polo shirt, and boat shoes, getting comfortable. As I entered the kitchen, she hit me with, "You didn't tell me your car was a Mercedes. Some different from my car which I hope you crushed today."
All I said was, "Business has been good lately. The car was an insurance total. When it came in, I thought it was good enough to have repaired. I like it."
"I like it too. It makes me feel like a queen riding in her chariot. We'll be eating in the dining room. I dusted and polished everything in there." Yes she had, and this included the floor. Again she spoke, "I see you drink beer for a beverage. The glasses are frosting in the freezer. I like beer myself, if it is cold."
I sat as directed. Nora brought in two frosted glasses and the beer. I asked, "What are we having for supper?"
"Chicken fried steak, baby potatoes, and baby carrots. We will have strawberry shortcake for dessert."
"Nora, how did you know every bit of what you named is my favorite dinner?"
"I found your wife's notes in her cookbook. Stuff yourself." I did. The strawberries had come from a farm stand and picked this morning. Nora had sugared them lightly, just enough to get the juices to flow. She had whipped real cream to top the cake with.
"Jack, do you want to hear my story tonight?"
"Yes. I also promise to listen with an open mind about what you tell me. Even if I can't find myself believing you, you have a home here as long as you wish."
"Fair enough and I hope you do believe me. I won't lie. To start, I have to go back fifteen years to the year I got out of high school. I was attracted to this handsome guy and aware he had a big ego. The world was his oyster. That was fine with me. I was satisfied to travel in his shadow. I was in love and we did the breaking my cherry thing. He planned to be an attorney and I loved him so I agreed to help him become one. We married and I went to work at a hardware store near my home and he went off to college.
"I missed the sex while he was away. I wasn't too careful about my birth control. I would take it when I knew far enough in advance when he was coming home. Of course I screwed up and got caught getting pregnant when he came home one time earlier than expected. I begged him to pull out as I wasn't safe, but he didn't bother. Within a few months I was bigger than a whale and couldn't work. I moved in with his parents. I of course was blamed for getting pregnant. His parents expected we would wait until he was out of college for children."
"How far apart are the boys and you might tell me your husband's name?"
"They are twins, two minutes apart, named Peter and Paul. My ex-husband's name is George"
"I went back to work as soon as possible and I worked every day. George's parents cared for the boys. George was always after me to send money, so I kept little for myself. The boys were six when George passed the bar. He immediately found a place as an attorney starting on the bottom in a large firm. We rented a house near his folks and he expected me to continue working until he was established. There were the student loans too that needed paying off.
"George controlled my life before he became an attorney and afterward as well. I was proud of what I had done for my husband. To be honest Jack, I do enjoy sex and for a few years, George was there for me and I was happy. That began to change three years ago. The sex dropped off and I had to ask for what I needed. Sometimes I demanded that he make love to me. Hey, I had put him through college and I deserved something for it didn't I?
"You know I looked nice when we went to functions at his law office on Christmas and New Years. There were always the summer pool parties as well and I was never ashamed of what I looked like in a bikini. Two years ago, George told me I wasn't invited to the Christmas Party. He would be going without me. He said it was just a chance for him to smooze with the other attorneys. I was disappointed because I looked forward to this yearly event. I never did care much for the New Year's bashes as it was mostly a drunken brawl.
"I found out more about the Christmas party some time later that year. I met one of the attorney's wives in the mall one day. She came up to me asking, 'Nora, do you really enjoy having an open marriage lifestyle? I couldn't even consider it for myself, but I can see where it might be fun on occasion. The rumor is that George has to put up with you because that is what you want and he loves you so much so he lets you do your thing."
"I was crushed because George was saying things about me that was totally false. I went home with fire in my eyes. He admitted that he might have implied to some of his friends at work I had messed around outside of our marriage. He wouldn't admit he was being unfaithful and I halfway believed him. I now know it was him who was messing around.
"George was my loving husband again for about a month. Then I got an anonymous note in the mail one day addressed for my eyes only. It was from three wives of the attorneys who worked with George. It was a warning to stay away from their husbands. I didn't socialize much after I got that. Last July fourth I did go to the pool party. That was a mistake. The head attorney of the firm where George works appeared at my side and asked me politely to leave.
"I asked why. He handed me a picture of me having sex with two men. My face was clearly identifiable. I was so humiliated, I left immediately. Jack, I swear on a stack of bibles that I had never been unfaithful, but the picture of me was there to be seen.
"I confronted George when he came home. He said I was getting too much of a reputation and it was transferring over into his job and hurting his chances. He might have to leave and go out on his own. He declared he couldn't stay married to me any longer and wanted a divorce. From then on it got worse and worse.
"He wanted to have custody of the twins transferred to his mother and father. He said they raised them as their own the last few months while I was off doing my thing. Hell, I was working every spare minute all those years. Someone had to care for them because he never had anything to do with them. Custody wasn't for himself, but for his parents because he never bonded with the boys at all. I don't think he wanted to pay their support to me. There is more. I lost my job the next week for having an inappropriate lifestyle that my company didn't condone. How they thought that, I can only guess.
"George always handled the money and I didn't have but little of my own. I engaged a lawyer. He was fresh at the bar and cheap. He was all I could afford and I counter sued. I was warned to just let the suit against me go forward. I was stubborn. Two weeks later I was pulled over and my car was gone through. There were drugs found under the front seat.
"I spent two nights in the jail, before I could get out. There was not enough to charge me with dealing, but within hours I was barred from seeing the boys and had an unfit mother charge lodged against me.
"The last nine months have been hell for me. I paid my attorney the last money I had because he gave it every effort, but he was up against too many experienced lawyers. My last hundred dollars I gave to the kid next door for his junk car and to have it registered. When the plates arrived, which was three days ago, I got in it and headed for my aunt's house.
"You know the rest. In the small case I have with me are just a few keepsakes from my family. You know pictures and stuff. George took anything of value, which wasn't much."
"What about your home?"
"It was nice, but a rental. George refused to pay the lease any longer after I lost the boys. I was going to be evicted this Friday. It seemed that when I did find work, it wasn't long before I was terminated. I was lucky if I had two consecutive week's work before my reputation caught up with me."
"And your boys, did you get a chance to say goodbye?"
"Yes, I had an hour to talk to them. I asked them to not forget me. They have promised me they wouldn't. They will be of age in four years. I can see them once a month until then, but it has to be supervised. You know I think my husband was pushing so hard that at the very last the judge wondered if there was more behind the suit that wasn't brought out. My lawyer didn't present anything to refute the evidence, so here I am. I'm thankful I didn't get jail time."
"Quite the story. What was behind it all? You must have some idea. Someone went to a lot of trouble."
"I believe it is one of the women attorneys named Phyllis Burbank. She saw George and wanted him. She has him now. They are living together. According to my mother-in-law, he has asked the woman to be his wife. They are trying to get enough money together to go out and start a small firm on their own. I think they were glad when I informed George I was leaving town."
"That picture of you, do you have it?"
"I have only one. There are some more copies in my file at the family court."
"Did your attorney ever have it examined to see if it was photo-shopped?"
"I don't think so. What do mean, photo-shopped?"
"That is where someone attaches an image of part of you onto an image of some other person. Just one crack in all of the evidence against you would make the rest of it suspect. It might clear your name."
"I don't think there is much hope of that. I don't have any money to explore it further."
"I'll back you in it. After all we are in business together."
"Jack, what are you doing here this fine Friday morning?"
We were at the courthouse and I had looked for Randy, hoping he would be there. Randy had been my friend all my life. When he joined the police department, we often ran into each other. "Hey Randy, you gave this lady beside me a citation. I came in with her while she pays it. I was hoping to run into you. While she is paying the clerk can I talk to you?"
"Sure, what's on your mind?"
"If I wanted a photo examined, who would I approach to see if it was altered or changed in any way?"
"We have a person in the department that could tell ... maybe. She is damned good. What are you getting into?"
"The woman I hired to clean my house is the woman that has the problem. She had some problems with her husband. He used this photo I'm talking about to prove infidelity. She says it never happened. Her attorney didn't have it examined and it was entered into evidence without question. Needless to say she is now divorced."
"Get it to me and I'll have someone look at it."
Nora walked up to us. "Seventy-eight dollars and twelve cents is what that citation cost me."
"You're the woman with the bald tires. Are you paying off your towing charge by cleaning the pig pen this guy has been living in?"
"That's right and he gave me a job so I could pay off a citation some deputy sheriff presented me with."
"Well, I would say you must be something special. He hasn't had anything to do with women for the last two years."
"Nothing special about me, but he does need his house cleaned. He likes my cooking too."
"I'd guess so. He brags about his grilled hotdogs. Anything would be better than those as a steady diet. Say, Jack said you have had some problems in your life recently. He tells me you have a photograph that he thinks should be examined. Do you have it in your possession if I can find someone to look at it?"
"I have it my room."
"I'll swing by after work some day when I can arrange to have a person with me who would know what to look for. It may take awhile, but we'll come as soon as we can. She has a camera and can she take a picture with you posing in the same position?"
An emphatic, "No," exploded from Nora's lips. "Nobody is taking a picture of me doing what the picture shows that person is doing or anything near it." Randy and I both laughed. She went on, "But I don't need to worry, Jack and I have a business deal and something like that will not be a part of it."
Randy picked up on that immediately. "Jack, tell me about this business deal you have with this woman."
I shook my head that I wouldn't. Randy smiled and didn't push further. I was thankful for that. He and I knew when to stop kidding about something such as this and this is what made us friends.