Nadine Miller lived to win. She was more determined to emerge victorious from every encounter she engaged in than anyone I'd ever met. Some folks speculated that her desperation arose from her dirt-poor beginnings on the wrong side of the tracks down in Los Angeles. Never having been all that flush myself, I understood how poverty could drive a person to succeed. But Nadine didn't just want to win, she needed to trounce the competition by a landslide, rubbing their noses in their defeat until she'd crushed whatever sense of self-worth they brought into the contest.
She also didn't care how she won. Backbiting attacks that undermined reputations seemed to be her favorite tactic. But rumor also held that she had a brother who'd been to prison, who now worked as muscle for some loan shark in the city. Maybe it wasn't true that he leaned on reluctant real estate sellers and buyers for her. None of them had ever been brave enough to admit it anyway.
It really surprised me when Nadine moved to our town and joined the staff at Thunder Ridge Realty, where I worked. We didn't see a lot of Type A's around here. Thunder Ridge was a small California town, too far north to be considered part of the sophisticated Southern California sprawl, too far inland to be linked to the trendier Central Coast communities. It was just a town of failing family ranches, with a few small businesses, on the road to nowhere. And since our one industrial park had burned down the previous spring, unemployment was high. Lots of people needed to sell their properties, but there weren't a lot of buyers lining up for them.
Yet Nadine was determined to single-handedly transform tiny Thunder Ridge into a thriving metropolis, picking up countless commissions along the way. I guess it didn't help that Mona Clare, the owner of our real estate firm, depicted our listings and sales in terms of a horse race. She wrote them out on a giant white board filling one wall of our communal office, then moved the horse designated to us along the little race course at the top of the board, depending on the number of points assigned to each of our accomplishments. Listings counted for a few points; sales for a lot more.
The first thing I remembered when Nadine set up her desk at Thunder Ridge Realty was the little plaque she placed at the front of her desk. I had one on my desk, too, but the only thing printed on my plaque was my name, Jodie Lamb. Nadine had been more creative. Hers read: “I'll rest when I'm dead.”
I remember saying to her once, not long after she arrived, “Do you really think they rest, Nadine? The people on the other side, I mean.”
With a petulant sigh, she said, “I think they rot, okay? Here, in the ground. It's just a way of expressing my determination. Get it?” She sent me a steely look of contempt over her no-nonsense, black-rimmed half glasses. “That's the trouble with you, Jodie. You're too literal. You're also lazy and you don't have your priorities straight.”
Did I mention that Nadine had cornered the market on rudeness? Since my husband, Jack, had lost his job in the industrial park fire, and I was breaking my back trying to make a buck from this job, I didn't think I actually qualified as lazy. Especially since I was also the mother of a two-year-old daughter, Becky. But despite our financial struggles, I was also determined that my family have a quality life, and I made time for that in my day. I'd say that made my priorities very straight; they simply weren't Nadine's.
You know that old saying? The one that says no one ever put on his tombstone, “I wish I'd spent more time at the office.” Well, Nadine was determined to be the first person who did.
Don't get me wrong, though. She could be quite charming when she chose to be. She was in her early-thirties, like me. She was also quite a pretty woman, with curly ginger hair, full childlike cheeks that pressed into dimples when she smiled. Of course, I'd never rated one of the smiles she reserved for her clients. Nadine's associates were more likely to see the deep groves that formed between her brows when she dressed us down.
And that wasn't sour grapes, either. Even if my horse on the sales-track chart had often won our contests before Nadine arrived, if just by a nose; and after she joined us, they generally lost by several lengths.
Nadine had gone all out to get a new industrial park built that first year after the fire, sending out a mailing to prominent developers all over the country. One particular Fat-Cat, an elderly retired developer, drove down from San Francisco at her behest. He hadn't seen much potential in coming out of retirement to build an industrial park in a place with so little industry. But Mr. Fat-Cat had been quite taken with Nadine. Within months they were married, and she left Thunder Ridge to live in his Pacific Heights townhouse.
But four years later, the marriage went belly-up. I guess the Fat-Cat wanted a wife, rather than a schemer, in his bed. The prenup she'd signed left her little to show for her time with him. Now Nadine was back working at Thunder Ridge Realty, more determined than ever to make her fortune. And this time, to give her an edge, she had muscled her way into a vacant seat on the town's zoning board.
I watched in silence now, as Nadine set up her desk, putting out the “I'll rest when I'm dead” plaque first, as she had four years before.
“Welcome back, Nadine,” Mona said.
She was a sixty-something widow who managed to raise three kids on the proceeds of the failing real estate company her late husband had left her. That was why she often gave people like me a job, even when she didn't need them. So they wouldn't have things as bad as she had.
“You won't find much changed, I'm afraid,” Mona added.
She gestured to the white board filling the office wall. Though there were at least a half-dozen small desks in that bullpen, other than Nadine and me, there had never been more than two other part-time associates, Ted and Jane. Their pitiful tallies in our current sales race were toted on the board, and their respective horses were placed awfully close to the starting gate. My own horse wasn't up there at all, though it would be soon.
I waited until everyone else had left for the day before approaching Nadine. “Still with the 'I'll rest when I'm dead' philosophy, eh, Nadine?”
Her response was nothing more than a contemptuous sniff. “And you're still a relentless time waster, I see, Jodie.” She pointed to my desk. “It's easy to see why your horse is not even on the board when you desktop doesn't contain so much as a file.”
My desk was as clear as she said, but there was a reason for that, and it had nothing to do with my lack of diligence.
Nadine gestured to the black scarf draped over my desk chair. “And I see you're still a lousy dresser, Jodie,” she added, always determined to get in a personal zing. “Black isn't your color.”
I just let her talk, while I took my horse from the top drawer of my desk and placed it ahead of those of my associates on the track. If Nadine wondered why I didn't write in any sales or listings to accompany the horse's position, she didn't ask.
“Better hurry up if you want to catch me in this race, Nadine,” I warned.
“Don't you worry about that, my girl. You'll be eating my dust when I'm finished with the deal I'm working on now. This will be the ultimate race.” But she gave her curly hair a toss when I asked about it, refusing to share a thing. “You'll never stop me from dashing across that finish line, Jodie.”
No? We'd see about that.
I dogged Nadine's every step for a while thereafter, determined to uncover her latest scheme. Fortunately, I didn't have to work at my real estate career any more. Mostly I didn't let her see me, so as not to tip my hand. But sometimes I did, just for the fun of it. It didn't really matter. Nadine didn't consider me smart enough to threaten her plans.
Maybe she was right. Initially, I couldn't discover anything. But one night, after everyone had gone home, I searched Nadine's desk in the office.
The first time through I missed it. And I'd been thorough. I didn't spot the critical clue in my personal mystery until I happened to shift the large black leather blotter Nadine had placed on the smallish oak desk that Mona provided.
Hidden beneath the blotter was an article torn from a recent issue of our local newspaper. The article discussed a proposition that had qualified for the ballot of next year's election, nearly eighteen months off. The ballot measure would put to a vote whether to allow a connective road to the closest interstate highway to cut through the edge of our town.
With that article alone, I began to understand her thinking. Of course, understanding isn't proof, so I had to keep digging. But poor Nadine. Poor, foolish Nadine. I suppose she thought that since there was no great outcry after that article that the citizens of Thunder Ridge either didn't care about the connective road, or actually favored it. If she'd only allowed herself to get to know the people here, instead of trying to gouge them, she'd have realized that eighteen months was simply too far ahead for folks to worry about a ballot measure. That issue had been raised many times during my life. The arguments wouldn't develop in earnest till the last several months. But they'd be pretty vocal then. In the end, if history was any guide, the measure would be soundly defeated. For while the people of Thunder Ridge did yearn for greater prosperity, they just couldn't endure changing the character of our peaceful little town.
Sadly, it wouldn't do any good to tell that to Nadine, since she always thought she knew better. Some things people need to learn for themselves. It was that experience that I hoped to provide for her.
My next break in the case came when I spotted Nadine's car parked where the Old Road takes a bend on the outskirts of town. I used to drive that way all the time when I first came to work at Thunder Ridge Realty; I hadn't been there in a long time now.
Nadine didn't see me when I first approached. She was deep in conversation with some man. He was a big bruiser who towered over her. But given the same ginger hair and full cheeks, I presumed him to be the ex-con brother people talked about, even if smack between his cheeks lay a nose permanently bent from some earlier break.
Nadine stood with her back to the tree that stands right where the road curves, and she waved a finger in the big guy's face. “Listen to me, Howie. There's a limit to the rough stuff, got it? If you kill them, it just sets us back.”
“Never heard of heirs?” the big man said with a nasally sneer.
“We'd just have to start over with their kids. Who has time for that?” Nadine snapped.
I sidled up to them. They were both so engrossed in their talk, they didn't see me at first.
“You must be the brother,” I said, coming between them. “I've heard about you.”
“Nothing good, I hope,” he said with a snicker that twisted his crooked nose.
I didn't get the chance to tell him his wish had been granted.
Nadine broke in with, “Jodie, I didn't hear your car drive up.” That distinctive wrinkle cut between her brows.
“I didn't drive,” I said.
“You walked all this way?” Nadine said with a sniff.
I let her think so.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“I came to see this tree. We have a strong association, you know.” I patted the trunk. While it was a magnificent old oak, a gash in its bark, which hadn't yet grown over, made for an ugly scar.
“It's just a stupid tree. You can see them all over this hick burg. Why don't you go commune with another one somewhere? My brother and I have business to conduct.”
I drifted away from them.
But the brother had something to say about my leaving. “You're just gonna let her go, Nadine? How do we know what she heard?”
“Howie, why don't you tell her there was something to hear?” Nadine muttered through clenched teeth. “She was walking, you big ox. She didn't hear anything.” Nadine turned to me. “Just go, Jodie, while you can.”
Howie called after me, “Bitch, if you tell anyone what was going on here, you're a dead woman.”
I just laughed.
But Howie's instability really did frighten me. I had to step up my campaign. I'd never been all that computer literate, and I thought it was a little late to learn now, but necessity changed my mind. Every night I came into the office and followed the paths Nadine had taken in her office computer that day. It took me a while to figure it out. But in time I unearthed all the dummy corporations she'd set up, and the folks she used to front them. I found evidence of all the properties those corporations had bought up around town, and I traced the whereabouts of the former owners of those properties. I even discovered evidence of a warrant the police down in L.A. had sworn out against Nadine's brother, Howie.
Once I gathered all that material together, even a child could have followed the logic. In the mistaken belief that a measure would be passed to allow the connective road to go through town, Nadine secured a seat on the zoning board, to make sure nothing else stood in its way. Then, to avoid any conflict of interest charges, she set up phony companies to buy all the properties along the route. She brought Howie in to shake down the owners of those lots and farms, who forced them to sell, and at rock-bottom prices from what I'd seen. To add insult to injury, she received commissions on those sales. In time, when those dummy companies sold that land to the state, at inflated prices, no one in town would know Nadine had engineered it, nor that she had been the only one to benefit from it.
I printed out everything I gathered. Then I faxed copies to the local newspaper and the police.
The newspaper pounced on it before the small police force in our sleepy little town. Though the local weekly had brought out an issue just the day before, everyone in town found a special edition on their doorsteps two days later. I had to admit the newspaper staff did a better job than I had, though I'd shown them the way.
They ran down all the ranchers who had sold their homesteads at such low prices. Once those frightened people realized they had the power of the press on their sides, they admitted to the threats, and in some cases, beatings that Howie had delivered. The people who were forced to serve as fronts in Nadine's dummy corporations also admitted their roles in the operation. Apparently, the editor even sent a copy of the edition to the LAPD down south. They dispatched a pair of cops to pick Howie up before he could skip town.
Later that day, I watched as Mona confronted Nadine in the office. To my surprise, the charges in the paper didn't make Nadine contrite, or even afraid, but angry.
“Someone in this office is responsible for my downfall,” she shouted at Mona. “Don't think I don't know that.”
Mona propped her fists on her broad hips. “If you mean me, I had nothing to do with it. If I had any idea what you were carrying out under the auspices of my office, I wouldn't have sent it to the newspaper, missy, I would have tossed you out on your ear.”
“Not you,” Nadine spat. “I mean Jodie. She saw Howie and me together. She had to be behind this.”
Mona snorted in disbelief. “Jodie? Nadine, Jodie's dead.”
Nadine sank into her desk chair. “But...”
“I assumed you'd heard. It happened almost four years ago, right after you moved to San Francisco. It was a rainy night out on the Old Road. A witness said she swerved to avoid hitting a dog and slammed into a tree.” Mona gave her gray head a regretful shake. “I still miss her so much. But it's been a long time. Jack got married again last spring. Becky has a new mother.”
I'd arranged for Jack to meet her. They were so lonely without me.
Some of the surprise had faded from Nadine's face, and her usual look of cunning began to return. “But her desk is still here and empty. Her nameplate's there.” She stabbed a finger in the direction of the plaque at the front of my desk.
“Look around you, Nadine.” Mona gestured to all the desks in the bullpen. “Does it look like we needed another desk? Yours was vacant, too. Besides, I like keeping Jodie's name there. It makes me think of her. Why did you think I draped that black scarf across her chair?”
“But her horse.” Nadine pointed at the sales wall. “Why is her horse on the track? You haven't assigned that horse to another associate, have you?”
Mona's lips pinched tightly together. “Of course not. And if I find out who keeps putting that horse up there — well, you won't be the only employee we lose.”
Mona snatched the horse from the little racecourse and carried it to what had been my old desk. She seemed so angry and distracted, she didn't appear to notice that I'd opened the drawer for her, so she was able to merely drop it in.
The phone rang, and Mona answered it. She listened for a few moments, before promising the caller she would convey the message.
When she hung up, she turned to Nadine. “That was the police. You have an hour to turn yourself in. Otherwise they're going to drag you out in handcuffs. Understood?”
Slouching now in her chair, Nadine just nodded. Mona walked toward the exit.
With an uncharacteristic show of humility, Nadine stopped Mona before she left. “But I've seen her. Jodie, I mean.”
With a sigh, Mona said, “Nadine, if you really think you've seen Jodie, you have more problems than just your legal woes.” With a sad shake of her head, Mona left the building.
I waited until I was sure Mona had gone to her car and driven away, before taking my horse from my old desk drawer once more. Since I didn't bother to make myself visible this time, the horse must have looked a little eerie floating across the room on its own. I put it up on the racecourse board again, this time just past the finished line. Because I had won this contest with Nadine. I competed in a different kind of race now, nothing to do with real estate sales. I struggled to set right the wrongs that cropped up in the place where I had once lived, before too many innocent people could be hurt. And that, not Nadine's little scam, was the ultimate race, the only one that really mattered.
Just to make sure Nadine knew it was really me there moving that horse, once I finished placing it on the track, I went to her desk, and knocked her “I'll rest when I'm dead plaque” to the floor.
Rest? Hah! With the way people here kept messing up, who had time for that?