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    CHAPTER 1

       

                                                      

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
                                                                     

 

Staging was everything.

Karen Grace closed her windows against the possibility of noise. Key Largo teemed with Christmas Eve revelers, and the marina was like a parking lot, with fishing charters and pleasure boats coming and going. So Karen took precautions. She couldn’t afford to blow her scheme. In one hour, the show would go live.

And the show, if successful, would launch her new business. In the past year, her safe and happy life had imploded. Now footloose and broke, she needed to rebuild everything, starting with finances.

She stood back, considering the optics. During the video call, her new client had to think Karen was calling from a high-end office building, not an old camping trailer.

First, she unfurled a backdrop poster depicting a floor-to-ceiling bookcase and attached it to the wall behind the dinette. Next, the kitchen table got a makeover with the addition of a leather-edged desk blotter, a coffee cup full of pens and pencils, and a monogrammed in-box. Placing her laptop on a stack of books, Karen raised it so the webcam would catch her from the waist up. She lowered the shades to enhance the lighting, adjusted her headset, and tested the audio. Everything checked out.

She showered, put on makeup, gave her blond hair a twist, and anchored it atop her head with ebony chopsticks. She pulled on a pair of Bermuda shorts, a white tank top, and a St. John’s blazer, purchased years ago when she and Steve were rolling in cash.

As one last precaution to protect the illusion, Karen dug around in her office supplies, found a thick black marker, and wrote Do Not Disturb on a piece of cardboard. Then she stuck it outside and locked the door.

With the flick of a switch, she activated the camera and microphone. Her client needed forty additional nurses to staff a new hospital. Thanks to the recruiting website Karen had designed, a bumper crop of candidates clamored to be hired.

The screen beeped, and her client appeared. Ursula Wahl looked exhausted, her face gray, eyes puffy. By contrast, in the past month Karen had acquired a healthy tan.

“Three more nurses resigned,” said Ursula. “I hope you have good news.”

“I have excellent news, and after that, we could talk about your turnover situation, if you like.”

“Perhaps.” Ursula lifted her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “Tell me about our candidates.”

“Did you have a chance to review the information I sent you?”

“Not in detail.” Ursula shuffled some papers. “It’s been a madhouse here.”

Karen summarized the three dozen candidates in a few minutes.

“Some of them appear to have erratic work histories,” said Ursula.

“Part of that was the recession.” Good people had been savaged by the economic downturn, and Karen was eager to see them return to work—not to mention she’d receive a nice fee per hire for her efforts.

“You’re too kind.” Ursula frowned, the dark circles under her eyes becoming more pronounced. “But I won’t settle for mediocre choices.”

“You’ll be pleased. I promise.” Karen knew what she was talking about. This time last year, she had been a corporate executive in charge of human resources for a national firm. She had the expertise to dazzle Ursula, earning a fat paycheck and a great reference. She felt the excitement, a sense of energy rising inside her chest. Her business was ready to take flight. Her future was in her hands. Finally.

A sharp pounding rattled the door of the trailer. Apologizing, Karen paused the call and yanked open the door. At the bottom of the step stood Gina, sporting more jewelry per square inch than Liberace. Her white hair contrasted with a deep tan. “Oh good, you’re up. Here’s that cocktail dress you were going to alter for me. Remember I told you about it yesterday at the beach?”

“I’m in the middle of a call.” Karen pointed at the Do Not Disturb sign, which she had put up specifically to ward off unplanned visits from the CRS ladies.

“This will only take a sec.” Gina unfurled a bundle of fabric and held it against her chest. “See? It’s too tight across the boobs. Not that I’m bragging. Well, really, I am. But I know you can fix it.”

“Gina, this isn’t a good time.”




“Look how beautiful it is. Here, I’ll just leave it with you, and you can get to it anytime. Well, any time before Saturday, which is when I need it."

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t. You’ll have to ask someone else. Now I have to get back to my call.” Karen closed the door, hoping Gina wouldn’t knock again. She didn’t want to be rude, but if she’d learned anything last summer in Cheyenne, it was that sometimes you had to put yourself first.

When she returned to her laptop, Ursula was frowning. “I only have five more minutes.”

“Here’s a suggestion. Why don’t I rank the candidates in order of their qualifications and identify my top choices? I know what you’re looking for, and that will save you time.”

“Good idea. Thank you.” They said good-bye, and the screen went blank.

Karen breathed a sigh of relief. She’d suggested that in the first place, but Ursula had wanted to micromanage the recruitment. Perhaps this was a sign that she would trust Grace and Associates to handle her business.

Twenty minutes later, she sent the email, stored her props, and opened the windows. A boat motor started up, and a tropical breeze floated in the window, calling her out to play. Feeling she’d earned a break, and eager to feel the sun on her face and the wind in her hair, she slapped on sun block, threw some snacks into her back pack, and hurried out the door. She unfastened the chain around the frame of her Buddy scooter, a cheap version of the sleek Italian brand. Karen had bought it to travel around the campground without having to use her truck. The little bike purred along the shoulder of the Overseas Highway, zipping past the line of cars always present during the tourist season. Turning in at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Karen waved her pass at the attendant and headed for the rental boats.

“Haven’t seen you for a couple days,” said the clerk.

“I’ve been busy working. Do you have any kayaks left?”

“A bunch. You need a map?”

“No, I’m good.” When she had first rented a kayak, Karen would prop the map on her knees while paddling through the mangrove swamp, afraid of getting lost. Her movements had been clumsy, the front of the craft jerking back and forth with her strokes, until she learned that less movement from the paddle propelled her in a straighter line.

Karen tossed the backpack into the kayak, slid it into shallow water, and climbed in, awkwardly pushing off against the sand. The sounds of the marina faded as the kayak slipped around the point and into the mangroves. Her shoulders relaxed, and Karen let out a big sigh. She loved camping with the CRS ladies, but sometimes a person just had to get away.

The gentle late-morning breeze cooled her as she paddled, and she relished the freedom of being able to explore the forest on her own. No one else was within sight or hearing. The only sound was the whistle and chirp of birds calling to each other from within the swamp. The water was crystal clear, the sea-grass bottom visible fifteen feet below. She raised the paddle out of the water and drifted, remembering a time when, as newlyweds, she and Steve had ridden in a hot-air balloon, marveling at the silence as they sailed over farmland and country roads. Except for the occasional heater jet, the balloon had floated in absolute quiet. The passengers had fallen silent, too, as if in reverence.

She felt the same way now, all alone out on the water, rocking gently in the windblown waves, breezes rippling across the surface of the bay. She angled toward the mangroves, alerting a blue heron, which glared at her in indignation before lifting off on a seven-foot wingspan. Nearby, a turtle splashed into the water from its resting place on a tree root. Karen tied up to a root, in the shade of the overhead canopy. Between her own self-imposed workload and the competing clamor of the CRS ladies, a solo kayak trip was the perfect respite. She cracked the seal on her water bottle and unwrapped a granola bar, finally able to relax.  

  

 

END

                                                                 

Lynne M. Spreen’s fiction features main characters in the second half of life. Her award-winning debut novel, Dakota Blues tells the story of a 50-year-old woman who takes a last road trip with a 90-year-old friend. She followed with Middle-Aged Crazy: Short Stories of Midlife and Beyond, and in October published Key Largo Blues, the sequel to her first book. This is an excerpt from that novel. Lynne is now working on a new Silver Romance series. For more information, please visit her website, AnyShinyThing.com.

 


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