A Fine Line Excerpt

The Baxter Series #5


“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
Proverbs 4:23

Sheila Paxton looked in the rearview mirror at rows and rows of cars backed up on the Atlanta freeway. She glanced at her Rolex and heaved a sigh of disgust. If the pace didn’t pick up soon, she would miss her plane. And the last thing she needed was to rattle Richard’s chain by missing another of his precious dinner parties.

She assessed the traffic and quickly pulled into the middle lane. The driver behind her laid on his horn and she threw her hands in the air.”What’s your problem? You’re not going anywhere!”

At least it had been a profitable week. The Baxter city council had unanimously voted to grant the permit for Thompson Tire Corporation to relocate there. Sheila had done the groundwork and had prepared persuasive answers to questions she knew would arise. And she had chosen to make her final presentation in a royal blue silk suit and three-inch heels. So the skirt was a little short. There were distinct advantages to being a woman. Richard wouldn’t have liked it. But then, what Richard didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

Sheila reached for her cell phone and dialed Charlie Kirby’s number.

“Mayor Kirby’s office.”

“This is Sheila Paxton. May I speak with the mayor, please?”

“Certainly. One moment.”

A jet rumbled overhead, and Sheila turned off the radio. She surveyed the seemingly endless tide of Friday afternoon traffic and dreaded that she would have to rush to catch her plane.

“Sheila!” Charlie said.”Are you back in Raleigh already?”

“No, I’m in Atlanta, inching my way to the airport in this ridiculous traffic. I can’t get you off my mind. I’m disappointed you didn’t show last night. I hardly slept a wink”

Sheila could almost picture his mental stammering in the seconds of dead air that followed.”I forgive you this time. I’ll be back next Friday to work out the final details on the Thompson deal, and I’ve already made arrangements to spend the entire weekend in Baxter.”

“Oh? It shouldn’t take more than a day to finish up.”

“I know. I won’t tell if you won’t…ciao!”

“Sheila disconnected the call, a smile on her face. She had his engine running and she knew it. There was something thrilling about going after a married man with seven kids, especially one that everyone thought was so religious.

She reached in her purse for a tube of lipstick, and pulled down the visor. In the mirror, she caught a glimpse of someone on a motorcycle angling his way through the stopped traffic.

He’s got a lot of nerve, cutting in front of everyone else! She heard a loud popping noise, then looked in her side mirror and saw that the man on the motorcycle had a gun and was shooting into cars!

Sheila ducked. She reached across the console, and opened her brief case. She fumbled for her gun, then remembered she hadn’t packed it because of airline regulations. More shots rang out. She grabbed her cell phone, and pushed the auto dial for Richard’s office.

It sounded as though the motorcycle had pulled alongside her. Sheila froze, her upper body still stretched across the console, the phone gripped tightly in her hand. She heard a gun blast and shattering glass, and felt an electric shock down her spine. Her arms went numb, and the phone fell on the floor.

“Sheila, is that you…? Sheila…? Talk to me!” She heard Richard’s voice, but couldn’t make her mouth move. So cold, she wanted to say. I’m so cold.

Sheila stared at the phone until she couldn’t focus, then closed her eyes, the sound of gunfire echoing in the distance, Richard’s voice the last thing she heard.

Chapter 1

Baxter Mayor Charlie Kirby sat in his office, looking over the building permit for the Thompson Tire Corporation. He winced when he heard something splat on the window and realized it was another egg thrown by angry protestors. Did they honestly believe that a few hundred new residents would change Baxter’s culture, turn the town into a regional hub, blot out tourism, and put them all out of business?

Charlie sighed. The tire plant would create twice as many jobs as were lost in the closing of Logan Textile Industries. The increased population would present some challenges, but the pros far outnumbered the cons. The Thompson team had presented compelling reasons why the relocation was a win-win. Charlie’s mind flashed back to Sheila Paxton writing on the marker board. She had looked more like a fashion model than a corporate lawyer. He entertained the image and realized he was blushing.

He glanced at the family portrait on his desk, then got up and stood at the window, his hands in his pockets, his eyes tracing the trail of egg yolks running down the glass and dripping onto the brick ledge. After the final plans were drawn up, he wouldn’t see Sheila anymore.

Charlie was startled by his secretary’s voice on the intercom.”Mr. Mayor, Ellen Jones is on line one.”

“Okay. Thanks, Regina.” He put a smile in his voice and picked up the receiver.”Hello, Madam Editor. How are you this fine day?”

“Charlie, don’t patronize me. Have you looked out your window?”

“I can’t see past the egg spattering.”

“On the wi ndow or on your face?”

“Come on, Ellen. It was a sound business decision.”

“The city council couldn’t have waited until the tension eased up?”

“We might have lost the window of opportunity. Thompson Tire was considering other sites. The tire plant will get this community back on its feet.”

“At what price?”

“Sometimes it’s necessary to sacrifice one thing to get another.”

“That’s hardly comforting to retailers on the square whose survival depends on the tourist trade.”

“They’re overreacting.”

“Then convince them, Charlie. They’re scared.”

“I already tried. They don’t want to be convinced. Look…” He took in a slow, deep breath.”More jobs means more people, which means more money to boost the local economy and—”

“The best positions at the plant are being filled by outsiders who will be transferred in.”

“So what? The plant executives will be an asset to the community.”

“Charlie, they’re coming from Atlanta and Raleigh and are used to a big-city culture. That could have a dramatic impact on the way of life here.”

“I’ve heard all this before.”

“But did you listen? These people are used to Starbucks and restaurant chains and shopping centers and movie theatres and stores of every size and type. Do we really want to be a regional hub? That may be good for the overall economy, but what are we sacrificing to get it?”

“We need to grow, Ellen. Life moves on. Baxter has to keep pace.”

“With whom?”

“Why are you being so arbitrary? When the new stretch of Interstate is opened up, more businesses will start springing up. There’s no stopping progress.”

“Maybe not. But don’t dismiss the voice of people concerned about preserving our heritage. I’m trying to support you, Charlie. But even I’m not convinced that bringing in a big tire plant is necessarily the best answer for our economic woes.”

“That’s why you’re the newspaper editor and I’m the mayor.”

“Touche’. But there’s going to be trouble unless you do a better job of addressing concerns.”

“Ellen, I already have. You can either rally the community behind me or fight me. It’s your newspaper. But the deal’s in concrete. Thompson Tire is coming to Baxter.”

* * *

On Friday after school, Kevin Kirby sat on his heels in the Stedman’s warehouse and started to light a cigar when he heard voices. His friend Ricky grabbed him by the arm and put a finger to his lips.

The boys moved behind an old washtub, closer to the railing, and peered down from the loft at Ricky’s father and grandfather and several other shop owners who had walked in.

Ricky’s grandfather held a stogy in his teeth and raised a hand to silence the others.”Thanks for coming,” Lenny Stedman said.”I’ve got something on my chest and I’ll cut to the chase: This new tire plant poses a serious threat to my business and yours. I’ve always planned to pass the store on to Avery here. Unless we stick together, that won’t happen now—”

“I don’t know,” Jack Weber said.”An authentic general store’s a real novelty. You and Avery stand a better chance of making it than most of us. At least yours has a reputation.”

“Won’t be enough,” Lenny said.”Tourists won’t come here just to see Stedman’s General Store. If the rest of you fold, I’m history.”

“What a rip,” Jack said.”Doesn’t it tick you off that we have to pay the price so outsiders can line their pockets?”

Lenny shrugged.”We had our say. Just weren’t persuasive enough.”

“I’ll give ’em persuasive,” Avery Stedman said.”Maybe they need a two-by-four upside the head. They’re not the ones about to lose a family business.”

“Can’t fight city hall, son. We’re wasting our time.”

“Yeah? And how am I supposed to raise my family? I grew up in that store and saw how hard you worked. Why should we lose it just because some sexy corporate attorney strutted her stuff at the mayor?”

“Stop it right there,” Lenny said.”That’s over the line and you know it.”

Avery raised an eyebrow and looked at the others.”Am I the only one who’s thought it…? Well…?”

“It crossed my mind,” Jack said.

“Bunk!” Lenny puffed on his cigar.”Mayor Kirby’s a man of integrity. I think he’s wrong on this issue, but I don’t believe some good lookin’ attorney influenced his vote.”

“Well, I do,” Avery said.”Charlie’s ball-and-chained to a wife and seven kids, playing the part of the good Christian man.’ Maybe he wanted off the wagon for once. It’s not hard for me to believe, the way she…”

“Enough said. You’re out of line.” Lenny looked from man to man.”What’s done is done. I asked you here because the only way we’re going to survive is if we dig in our heels. If any one of us on the town square closes up shop, it’ll start a selling frenzy.”

Avery nodded.”And it’s anybody’s guess what will go in. Nobody else seems to care about preserving what we’ve got here.”

The men started talking among themselves again, and Lenny held up his hand.”Some of our businesses have been on the town square as long as I can remember. If they go, a big part of our history will dry up. Can we agree to stick together on this?”

Kevin Kirby blinked the stinging from his eyes. He heard the mumbling and saw heads nodding, but all he could think about was making Ricky’s dad take back what he’d said.

* * *

Kevin picked up a smooth, flat stone and skipped it across the glassy water of Heron Lake.

“My dad didn’t mean it,” Ricky Stedman said.

“He did, too. You just don’t want me to feel bad.” Kevin picked up another stone and hurled it as hard as he could. Why hadn’t he done what his mother told him instead of going to the warehouse? Then he would never have heard Mr. Stedman’s lies.

“Cool!” Ricky said.”Mine skipped four times.”

Kevin stood facing the lake, staring at nothing.

Ricky reached down and pulled his bike upright.”I gotta go. If I’m late again, I’ll be grounded. You coming?”

“Think I’ll hang out here for a while.”

“Look, Kev. Just ’cause he said it doesn’t make it so.”

Kevin looked into his friend’s eyes and saw doubt staring back at him.

Ricky got on his bike and straddled it.”You gonna ask your dad?”

Kevin felt an aching inside he had never experienced before. He had always been proud to be part of a big family. Never once had it occurred to him that his dad might cheat on his mom or might not care about the kids anymore.

“Well, are you?” Ricky said.

“Why should I? It’s not true.”

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

* * *

Charlie put the storybook down. He got up and tucked his youngest daughter’s arm under the covers.”Jesus loves you, and so does Daddy,” he whispered. Charlie kissed her on the forehead, then tiptoed to the door and pulled it shut behind him.

“Is she out?” Marlene Kirby asked, a laundry basket in her arms.

“Like an angel. Here, Marlie, let me carry that.” Charlie took the basket and walked down the hall to the laundry room and laid it on the counter.”I wonder how many loads you’ve done on this old Kenmore?”

She smiled.”Not enough. Want to sort or fold?”

“I’ll sort.”

“You were awfully quiet at dinner,” she said.”Are you bothered by the reaction to the permit?”

“Somewhat. But it was the right decision.”

Marlene folded a navy sweatshirt and put it on the stack.”Why are you so sure?”

“Because I’ve been an investor a lot longer than I’ve been a mayor. Down the road, people will remember this as a turning point in the growth of the town’s economy.”

Marlene shook a pair of blue jeans and smoothed out the wrinkles with her hands.”So, did you get all your paperwork done last night? I didn’t even hear you come to bed.”

“I made a respectable dent.” Charlie felt the lie prick his conscience.”By the way, is something wrong with Kevin?”

“I don’t think so. Why?”

“He didn’t say a word at dinner. Looked like he’d lost his best friend.”

Marlene smiled.”Hardly. Ricky was here after school, and the boys polished off half a package of Oreos before they rode their bikes to the lake. Would you hand me the white things?”

“Here, I’ll do that.” Charlie picked up the light-colored clothes he had sorted and put them in the washer.

Marlene poured in a scoop of detergent and turned the dial.”So much for laundry. Now I need to plan out the soccer schedule for tomorrow morning… Charlie, why are you staring at me like that?”

“I was just thinking what a marvel you are. Your day doesn’t stop until you close your eyes, does it?”

“I’ve been doing this so long, I wouldn’t know how to act if it did.” Marlene kissed him gently on the lips and headed for the kitchen.

Charlie felt shame radiating from his face. He thought about another kiss: The one Sheila Paxton had initiated last night when he walked her to her car. It’s not as though he hadn’t seen it coming. But instead of resisting, he became a willing partner in an eager, passionate exchange that made him yearn for more…

Charlie had quickly moved Sheila’s arms from around his neck, his eyes searching the dusk, hoping no one had seen them.”This is wrong.”

“Oh, come on, Charlie. It was just a kiss. You enjoyed it as much as I did.” Sheila’s alluring eyes seemed to read his thoughts.”Ah, I should’ve known. You’re not the adventurous type.” Sheila smiled devilishly, a room key dangling from her hand.”Too bad. I absolutely hate sleeping alone.” She inched closer and put her lips to his ear.”And I never kiss and tell.” She dropped her room key in the pocket of his sport jacket.

Charlie watched her drive away, then went back inside and sat at his desk. He fought his conscience for several minutes and then called Marlene.”Listen, Marlie. I’ve got hours of work to catch up on. I think I’ll stay with it until I get tired.”

“How were the meetings?”

“Long. We’ll finish up in the morning. But I’m behind on everything else. Don’t wait up.”

“All right. I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Charlie hung up the phone, Sheila’s room key in his hand, and Marlene’s, “I love you,” echoing in his mind.

He got up and started pacing. He hadn’t gone looking for this. And it wasn’t as if Sheila meant anything to him. After the Thompson deal was closed, he’d never see her again. He picked up the receiver and dialed the number on the back of the room key.

“Good evening, The Parker House.”

“I’d like to speak with Sheila Paxton in room 311,” he said, making his voice sound deeper.

“One moment.”

Charlie fiddled with the key in his hand and waited for what seemed an inordinate amount of time.

“Hellooo…” said a soft, alluring voice on the other end of the phone.”Where are you?”

Charlie’s senses came alive with the taste of her lips, the scent of her perfume, the feeling of her body pressed to his. He hung up the phone, his heart pounding.

He paced for a few minutes, knowing what he should do. Instead, he picked up the phone and redialed the Parker House, then hung up before Sheila could answer. Seconds later, he sat staring at the ringing phone, glad when it was finally silent.

He didn’t know how long he had stayed at the office after that, but finally went home saddled with equal portions of guilt and desire, still unsure if he would resist if Sheila came on to him again…

Charlie heard Marlene singing in the kitchen and realized he was still standing in the laundry room. He went down the hall to the master bedroom and sat in the dark on the side of the bed. Why hadn’t he just said no and put a stop to it?