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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Adventures of a woman caught in an ethical crisis, set in background of small rural town.

Submitted: December 02, 2011

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Submitted: December 02, 2011



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The room was empty.That was nothing new at Jim Cobb’s Inn.Few people stayed in this dusty little town very long, unless of course, they were the old timers and their offspring.Kelsbury was a human wall of silence, more powerful than the Great Wall of China in keeping out folks who might shake up their tranquil ways.Tedda had no better luck in blending into this nondescript place than anyone else.There was one difference.As she was going down the stairs with her few possessions, a young man named Darrell was watching her every move.

It did not take long for the news to leak out.As a band aid can only hold on for so long before the pus of an infected would drips through, the Golfern Paper Mill embezzlement scandal hit the area like an unwanted, virulent virus.Yet small towns have an uncanny way of appearing postcard tranquil, old fashioned in a quaint way, making an unhappy seeker delude themselves into thinking this is a place of rest.Not so.Even as Hester, the clerk at Mel’s Dry Goods Store held the Golfern Picayune newspaper, she looked to all the world as a peaceful little clerk passing the time of day with a wholesome local customer named Lonnie Sue.

Hester had mentioned to Darrell that she thought that strange woman would be leaving soon.On some level, she knew that would perk up his ears, but she had a permissive love for him she could not understand or admit.She had no children of her own, but had always considered Darrell, her sister’s son, as her own.Darrell was good at tinkering with cars, but had a habit of picking up things that did not belong to him.As a youngster, he already was adept at stealing tires and copper wires from wherever they might be – inside or outside of various premises.Now, in his early twenties, he moved on to heavier booty.

As Tedda disappeared down the stairs, he walked into the unlocked room with a large wooden dolly Jim kept in a storage area, and removed the few pieces of furniture. They would get him a couple of dollars from Mad Martin, an auctioneer who dealt with merchandise such as tires, copper wire, guns, bicycles, motorcycles, furniture and even cars and farm equipment.Once Martin made the deal, there was nothing to worry about. He would not turn anybody in, not unless they shorted him.

Martin probably had no eye for antiques either, so it would be another small transaction.Somehow, people always needed furniture, no matter how shabby or scratched up.Martin knew that.Guns, of course, took top precedence over where a body could sleep, sit or eat.That was where the money was.Darrell was not slick enough to deal with guns, so he settled for the safer merchandise.

Tedda had admired the old furniture, spotting genuine antiques under layers of odd paint, varnish and dust.The locals only saw the value of a table as something to eat from, a chair to sit in, and a chest to put things in.

She was already on the road when all the pieces were removed.Darrell was sure Hester would cover for him and claim the strange woman hauled the furniture away.

Days in Mel’s store wore on in their sameness as a fan whirred slowly under the cobwebbed ceiling.Indian summer had drained what little energy Kelsbury could muster, even in the best of times.Mel’s provided canned goods, a few vegetables, milk, beer and all the news a soul could possibly want to know, true or not.Hester, Mel’s only employee, had eyes like a hungry falcon and a tongue swift as a water moccasin. She felt it her duty to embellish a tale told, meat and potatoes of a scandal garnished with verbal parsley, lettuce, onions and topped with a gooey gravy of innuendo. Today, however, she had a tinge of conscience.The Golfern Picayune, the only newspaper distributed in the area, had an article mentioning that strange woman.

“I reckon we were a bit rough on her,” Hester said to Lonnie Sue who stopped by every afternoon.Lonnie Sue, a wiry woman in her early thirties, sat legs crossed, on a nearby plastic milk crate.A tightly twisted knot of blond hair perched on her head pulled her face into a constant state of tension.As pale as the bleached frame houses sprinkled around town, she blended well into this whistle-stop of a place even the locals called Deadsbury.

“Oh, come on,” the Lonnie Sue said. “We were right neighborly.”

“Don’t know about that,” Hester said, picking up a well-thumbed home products catalog.

“Tedda,” Lonnie Sue said.“Tedda.Don’t sound like a real name t’all.I’d wagershe made that up.”

Not long ago a strange woman arrived in Kelsbury, rented a room at Jim Cobb’s Inn, and just as suddenly disappeared, leaving an unpaid rent bill.

“She jes’ didn’t know her place,” Lonnie Sue said, smoothing her hands over two spindly legs.“But we overlooked that.Least I did.”

“Don’t suppose she’ll ever come back,” Hester said.

“Hope not.Don’t know what she was up to anyhow.No good’s my guess.”

A boy of about fifteen, short, stiff black hair sticking out in all directions and protruding front teeth, pushed past the screen door with an armload of newspapers.

“Trouble in Golfern,” he said, sweat dripping from his clean, pink face.“Big trouble.”He dropped the latest edition of the Golfern Picayune on a shelf, removing two old issues which he stuck in the back of his pants.

“It’s all there,” he pointed to the stack.The smell of fresh printers ink filled the little store. “Yep, big trouble.”Then he was gone.

Lonnie Sue reached over and picked up a copy.

“Land sakes,” she exclaimed.“Look at this.”

“Lemme see,” Hester said, grabbing the paper from Lonnie Sue.

‘Mill Fraud Exposed,’ was splashed across the front page, with a subheading ‘disgruntled bookkeeper blows lid on big swindle.’ According to the article, the whistle blower had ‘holed up in a neighboring town.’

Golfern Paper Mill was the largest employer in Golfern and drew many able-bodied men from nearby Kelsbury.Dawn would find men waiting on the County Road for carpools to the factory.

“It’s her,” Lonnie Sue said, peeking at a photo next to the article. “It’s her.I told you she was no good. I told you.”

Hester slowly pronounced the name under the photo. “Ted-da Egg-les-ville.”

She looked up.“Yep. It’s her all right.”

“I’m gonna show this to Terrence,” Lonnie Sue said, grabbing another copy.

“Put that on our bill, won’t you? Didn’t bring a dime with me.”

“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” Hester said.Terrence was a part-timer at the mill.

The Picayune sold out in an hour’s time.

That evening the only topic around supper tables was this article.

“Good thing she took off,” the men said, eyeing shotguns over door lintels.“Good thing.”

“Troublemaker,” the women hissed, “Outsider.”

Tedda Egglesville, the subject of all the ruckus, had arrived in Kelsbury one summer morning in a dusty, sputtering car clearly on its last legs. She rented a room at a tiny rooming house across the street from Mel’s.Clothes dripping with sweat, hair straggly, the woman caused a stir among the townsfolk.

Not long ago, the very same Tedda Egglesville, worked in the accounting department of the Mill. She rented a three bedroom house in Palm Grove, a suburb of Golfern with large green lawns and flowering trees. She was friendly with the salesmen whose checks she issued.The large accounts were handled by mail, but many reps from smaller firms would stop by the day the vouchers were cut.Mason was one of the latter.He would call several times in advance, and would wait around Tedda’s office while the printer cranked out a stream of checks.Charming and good looking, Mason would chat with Tedda on his frequent visits, usually disappearing immediately after he got the money.One afternoon he turned to leave, but stopped by the door.

“Hey, I just made a big deal, he said. “How about dinner at Lanai Loa?”

Tedda liked Mason from the start.Funny and romantic, he clowned with the fire dancers at the restaurant.He ordered tropical delicacies served on banana leaves and frangipani blossoms.They sipped heady drinks from intricately carved coconuts and danced to Island rhythms on a floor bathed in mysterious ultra-violet lights.

It was easy for Tedda to fall in love.He gave her a beautiful ring and promised to marry her when another big deal would, in his words, ‘fly.’ He drove an expensive, flashy rental car, claiming a brand new truck and SUV were in storage until the money came in.

At first Tedda was sure the sums she withdrew from dormant accounts at the Mill to tide him over, would be replaced as soon as his deal came through.Months went by. He moved in with her.He returned the rental car, dropping her off at work in the morning and picking her up after work.

Little by little, he became short-tempered and moody.He began disappearing on weekends. Tedda did not question him when he came back, hoping it would not happen again. She herself felt tension build as the sums she withdrew grew larger and larger. The paper trail she cleverly hid could not go on forever.There would be audits, questions.

The owners had their own agendas, to which she agreed when accepting this job.But she was just an employee and bilking revenues was not the same as what the employers were making her do.They created a lot of jobs in the area, donated to charities and either held or supported important community positions.They had the best lawyers.They had clout. There was little chance they would get caught.

Tedda blocked out the day when, in desperation, she agreed to ‘creative accounting’ with this firm.She had been job-hunting for months and this offer was in line with her background and degrees.The pay was excellent, the area safe, weather good.The alternative would have been slinging hash or clerking in a department store, standing on her feet all day for a measly couple of dollars.

When Mason first entered her life, she hoped he would save her from this compromising job which looked good on the surface, but was eating at her insides.What had gone wrong?All she did was fall in love.

“Love,” she said, looking in the bathroom mirror that fateful morning. “Love.”She spit the word out as if it were poison.The mirror suddenly showed a hag, hair unkempt, uncut, skin rough and splotchy, blouse stained.“So this is what love does to a woman.”

Mason was sitting in the breakfast nook smoking a cigarette.Tedda walked to the coffee maker and poured a cup.

“I’ve been a bad boy,” he said.

The coffee mug in her hand began to tremble.

“I got in some trouble last night,” he said, looking out the window.“Get me a couple of grand.”

“Again?” Tedda said, anger welling up in her voice.“I just gave you that thousand last week.”

Mason rammed his fist on the counter, rattling dishes and spilling a cup of coffee.“I told you I need the money.Don’t you understand?”

“All right, all right,” Tedda said.“I’ll have it tonight.” She grabbed her purse on a side table.

“I’m taking the car.”

Mason said nothing.He ground the half smoked cigarette into a nearby ashtray and then lit another one.

The car in the driveway was covered with dust and mud, a rear tire almost flat.Tedda turned the ignition.The engine rumbled and rattled.The car began to move slowly while the temperature gauge quickly climbed into the red zone.Robotlike, she gripped the steering wheel, not paying attention to street names or traffic lights.Yet car seemed to move as if programmed to an unseen, unknown destination.

Beads of salty sweat fell in her eyes, blurring vision.After a while she noticed there were no buildings or street signs, nothing but fields all around.Then a green County road sign appeared on the right.

‘Kelsbury – Dead Ahead.’

The engine chugged and sputtered.Steam rose from the hood.If the car stopped, there would be no one to help.She would either have to start walking or sit in the car and wait.She noticed a battered brochure on the passenger seat, announcing a stock car race.She threw it out the window and watched it land on the side of the road.A cool morning breeze brought the faint scent of blossoms.Suddenly a feeling of relief overcame her, as if she was going on vacation.

The landscape turned barren.A haze made it hard to see into the distance. Small dark shapes appeared ahead and became a smattering of weather beaten buildings.

“This must be Kelsbury,” Tedda said with relief.

She pulled up next to a tin sign scribbled with the letters ‘M – E – L,’ propped against a rickety porch.Tedda felt unsteady on her feet as she climbed out of the car.The heat was unbearable.For a moment, she saw nothing but a blackness in front of her eyes.She stumbled into the small store and a welcome smell of peanuts, oranges and pickles bathed her nostrils.

“Can I help you, ma’am?” Hester said.

“Oh, yes, yes. I need a cold drink.”

“Over there,” the clerk pointed to a cooler case.“Help yerself.”

Small towns have a way of accommodating many needs, including those of strangers with a couple of dollars in their pockets.Soon Tedda was ushered to a room in Jim Cobb’s Inn.Jim was a distant relative of Hester’s, although Hester was always jealous of Jim being well off and she being a clerk with low pay.Her nephew Darrell, a mechanic of sorts, came over to see about fixing the car.

Tedda kept to herself, venturing out only to pick up a few groceries.Darrell tinkered with the motor, replaced some parts and charged several hundred dollars. Fortunately, Mason had not found a duffel bag stuffed beneath the spare tire compartment, containing a few jars of cream, some clothes, a toothbrush and inside the lining of a pair of jeans, five one hundred dollar bills.That was her case money. The repair would take most of it.She would have to give some to Jim Cobb.There would have to be enough left to fill the gas tank, to get her where she had to go.The copies she needed to make would take at least twenty dollars, maybe thirty. She could not think of anything after that.It was like a curtain that fell down, with no encore or second act.

During lunch all incoming calls to Golfern Paper Mill were routed to voicemail.Tedda dialed the office when no human voice would ask questions.

“This is Tedda,” she said to the machine.“I had a family emergency and had to leave town.The payroll is ready so there should be no problem.”

Her number was blocked, so there would be no return call. Only Mason knew the number and she would not answer even if he did try to contact her, which was not likely.

The little phone now felt like a firebrand.She quickly turned it off and threw it in the bottom drawer of an old chest in the room.An odor of cedar and mothballs bathed her face, reminding her of a long forgotten place.She threw herself on the narrow, lumpy bed and began scanning her surroundings. On the walls hung fragments of floral papers, mixed with several layers of paint, peeling and smelling of rotting wood and ancient cotton batting.

She rolled to the floor and found the feel of a tightly knit rag rug surprisingly pleasant as her knees pressed against it.Unzipping the travel bag, she placed a few jars of cream and sundry toiletries on the dresser.Months, or perhaps years ago she had carelessly tossed them into the bag.

To save washing clothes, which she did by hand, drying them by hanging them around the room, she wore very little.There was no fan and little air came from the window.She would often sleep naked and during the day wrapped a sheet around her body, reading dime novels or listened to the radio.

“I gotta do it before the weekend.But not tomorrow.I can’t, I can’t.” she said, staring at the hazy image in the oval mirror.“There is no other way.”

Raising her arms, she lifted heavy, now matted, black hair from her shoulders, trying to shape it into a pile of curls on top of her head.

Memories of the firemen’s ball came back.Her hair had been pulled into a chignon, sprinkled with little jewels; her gown a cobalt blue silk taffeta, face and nails pampered in a spa the day before the party.

‘You are like a star at midnight,’ a stranger remarked as she sat in the glamorous foyer of the Pierre Hotel, waiting for her date to return with a cold drink.

That evening was as distant now, that belle of the ball as odd, as the image in the copper mirror.

“Where is that beauty now?” Tedda laughed. “I don’t even comb my hair any more.”

How little resistance she had made when Golfern suggested ‘creative accounting.’

“Where is the woman who made top grades in math?” she said. “A crook and soon, a fink.”

She dropped her hands, thick hair cascading in limp straggles over her sweaty shoulders.She glanced at unused jars of creams and lotions on the chest. They were covered with dust, a pale reminder of a past life.When had she put on cream?She couldn’t remember.What would be the use, anyway?

“Thursday,” she said, dropping the sheet around her hips.“It’s Thursday.”She kneeled down and began rummaging through the bottom drawer of the chest.Her body surged with a strange energy.The sun would set soon and she would make the move around nine.The desk clerk at Cobb’s Inn would go to his room and lock the front door.The tenants could leave from the back with a special key.

She ate some crackers and finished the dregs of a jug of iced tea.Then it was time.

“Okay,” she said, taking one last look in the mirror.“The wait is over.”

It did not take long. She threw her few possessions in paper bags and a couple of canvas totes, walked out the back door.She started the engine.It purred like a kitten.

Now she was on the four lane paved road, heading north.She did not look in the rear view mirror. Kelsbury was already a thing of the past.The hotel manager would curse when he found her gone.He would probably never know he had a valuable antique mirror in the threadbare room.

That night she parked behind the Golfern Paper Mill. The lot was a large unpaved spread of gravel, surrounded by pine groups of pine trees.Teens would park there at night.A few did target practice.There were a couple of cars in the distance.She hoped nobody paid any attention to her overnight stay.

When dawn broke, she sat in the back seat, waiting for a car or two to arrive in the front of the factory.Soon a white pick-up truck pulled up near the entrance.It was Ferrel, the security guard.She walked over to him as he put a clipboard on a makeshift table.

“Hello, there,” Ferrel said.“You forgot somethin’?They told me you was gone till Monday.”

“Yes,” Tedda said. “I left some important papers in my desk.”

After an uncomfortable night in the car, she felt offensive, but Ferrel did not seem to notice.He always looked shabby, a shirttail hanging over his pants, a shock of sandy hair slipping out from under the cap. He was the boyfriend of one of the owners’ sisters.Tedda, as bookkeeper, handed out the large bonuses he received during holidays.

Now, walking toward the factory entrance, she felt Ferrel’s eyes on her.

“By the way,” she said, turning, “You’re getting a good sized check next week.I cut it the other day.”

It was a lie, but that would keep him from any more questions.

Then she disappeared into the cavernous interior of the factory.It was easy enough to fish out the master keys from a hidden box and unlock the files.She calmly emptied the files into two canvas tote bags and walked out, leaving the master keys in plain view on an unused desk.

“Hey, maam,” Ferrel yelled. He was leaning against his truck, puffing on a large cigar.“Too bad about your mother.I’m awful sorry.”

“Thanks,” Tedda said, and then added, “Good luck, Ferrel.”She walked slowly behind the building to the back parking lot.

There had been no other security people in the plant, just a few workmen tearing down panels and hauling things on long, industrial carts.Even if Ferrel was suspicious, he probably wouldn’t leave the entrance to follow a trusted employee, especially one who doled out checks.

She drove down a side road to ‘Simple Simmons,’ a sleepy little drive-in restaurant, parking her car behind a dumpster.Washing herself in the bathroom she rinsed her mouth and drank a little water, cupping her hands over the sink.

“Can I help you?” a teenager sitting by the cashbox said when she came out of the rest room.

Tedda bought a pack of chewing gum and left a dollar on the counter.

“Hey, wait for the change,” the teen said.

“Keep it,” she said.

At the courthouse, there were several new copy machines in a side room, along with the old ones that always seemed to jam papers. The new machines registered the amount of copies as well as the price.Tedda still had money for rent in her purse, but that money would go to better use now.From the look of it, most of it would go to pay for the copies.

Tedda pressed the duplicate button on a new machine.As if by magic, it began humming, producing neat piles of paper at amazing speed.Even so, it took over an hour. Just one missing sheet might weaken the trail and maybe undo the whole case.She was quite familiar with intricacies of advanced spreadsheet formulas and new programs that could bury information even some auditors couldn’t track or trace, unless, of course, they had a crooked mind.

When done, she placed two neatly stapled stacks of paper in her tote bags and clutched the original files under her arm.She heard heavy footsteps on the well-worn marble staircase leading to the second floor, where the mayor, city manager and other top officials had their offices. She turned and saw Munroe Braxton, the city attorney, walking down the stairs, holding a leather briefcase.

Why had she lied, telling him she already gave copies to Richard Ruggle, editor and publisher of Golfern Picayune?It would not have made any difference either way.It no longer seemed like lying, it was just part of a chess game which she had joined, an unwilling, unwitting pawn.

“Not really a pawn,” she said, “more like a bleeding heart queen.”

At a stoplight, a man was watching her from his car.

“What are you looking at?” she growled.He turned his face and drove forward, ignoring the traffic signal.

“Why, Tedda,” Ruggle said, “Nice to see you.Where you been lately?”His hands were greasy.A green visor seemed to be glued to his head.

“No time for small talk,” Tedda said.She put a stack of papers on his desk.

Overnight, the fraud became the main topic in living rooms, coffee shops, bars and was given space in national newspapers.

Each day more names were revealed, many in high positions of trust.

Tedda was familiar with top-secret cabinets in the administrative offices of the mill.She had access to master keys.It had been easier than she expected.Soon she was at the county courthouse, making copies of all the files.

It was mid-afternoon when she finally finished the job.She heard footsteps on the worn marble staircase.Tedda turned.There was the man she was hoping to see.Munroe Braxton, county attorney, was just leaving for the day.

“You might be interested in this,” she said.Munroe, taken aback, saw the logo of Golfern Mill and what looked like budgets, quickly tucked the papers in his worn leather briefcase.

“Why thank you, Miss Tedda,” he said in a rich drawl. “I’ll be sure and take a look.”

“By the way,” Tedda said, “Ruggle has a copy.”She pushed open the heavy carved door of the courthouse and turned to a side street where her car was parked.

After the nervous breakdown while ‘cooking’ the books as ordered by the management, and tired of watching unfair treatment at the mill, she had often thought about blowing the whistle.When Mason kept pressuring her for more money, she knew that day would not be far off.

Too many people now knew of the scandal, so even the Golfern Picayune was pressured to print the news.Legal measures were in the works and many people who had depended on the mill for their livelihood either moved or took on jobs in towns much further away.Families do not live in small towns unless they have good reason to be there.Good pay is not on top of the list since there usually there is no such thing there.There is no analyzing their motives.That would be as useless as dissecting the reasons why people continue in extreme primitive conditions in the Andes highlands when going a few miles down, they could have more ‘things.’So those who stayed, stayed and those who left, left, and it was not for anyone to reason why they made those choices.

Tedda had moved too high up the house of cards which is civilization, to be able to live in the Andes or worse, almost anywhere.Her only option might be to blend into the cauldron of a metropolis where no one seemed to notice or care, except when it affected their cache of power and possessions.The wheels of justice would grind, as they do, and sooner or later, she would be called to testify, to explain, to be in the news again.

Could she retreat to a solitary ranch somewhere, if for some reason it would be possible?A mountain retreat in Mexico? An expatriate colony in Costa Rica?Or would she end up a shabby old lady wandering the streets, watching children playing in a park, eating bruised fruit from a sympathetic produce vendor, sleeping in a tiny trailer that leaked when it rained? If so, would she be at peace, knowing there are no power-brokers to break her spirit, no lovers to break her heart, nobody to steal her possessions? Would she be like an empty room, swept clean from the ravages of pride and passion?Would she be like the memory fine antiques, covered over by years of dust, varnish and chipped paint that nobody notices or appreciates?Would the only peace remain in the empty room of her soul?

© Copyright 2018 Liilian. All rights reserved.

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