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Voted Out

 

Acknowledgement

 

To my family and friends, thank you for your encouragement and support.

A special thank you to Karen-B for suggesting some of the wonderful quotes at the beginning of each chapter. A humongous thank you to Karen-P for going through every sentence with a fine-tooth comb. And many more thank-yous to Karen-B, Sherry-C, Karen-P, and Mary-U for reading Voted Out one last time before I sent it back to my publisher. Your help was greatly appreciated.

Hugs! JS

Chapter One

 

 

~My blood type is coffee.~

 

The chime of the doorbell intensified Liliane Irwin’s frantic heartbeat.

She hadn’t felt that nervous since her daughter’s father kissed her, and from there it had slid downhill so fast it broke a world record.

Relax, Liliane. It’s not like you’ve never spent the night with a man.

Acutely aware of the signal she sent by letting him stay in her house for a few days while her nineteen-year-old daughter toured Europe with her best male friend, Liliane forced herself to breathe in and out as she peered through the living room window into the darkness. Her guest would chew her head off if she opened the door without checking his identity.

In the night, turquoise northern lights danced around the crescent moon in the western sky.

Her gaze traveled from the driveway, where he parked his rental car, to the porch illuminated by a lantern missing its pointy hat. There he stood, facing the front door, a duffel bag slung over his left shoulder.

She recognized his profile and the emblem stitched on his bag.

Here goes the beginning—or the end—of this relationship.

A surge of adrenaline jolted her body as she rushed down the stairs to open the door. A warm summer breeze wafted into the entryway. “You’re late, handsome.”

He smiled. A rugged smile that could instill fear as easily as it could ignite passion in the heart of the recipient. “There was a suspicious package at the airport. It took hours to sort it out. Did you get my message?”

His not-so-explicit text message had consisted of four words. Probably be very late.

“Yes. Come in.” She hurried to close and lock the door before any unwelcome winged creatures fluttered in. “Since you cancelled our dinner date, I stayed at work late to search previous employment records.”

The man whose slightest touch awoke the butterflies in her stomach enlaced her with his arms. “As long as you didn’t find that search as fascinating as me, I can handle the competition.”

Silent laughter rocked her belly, stirring the butterflies into a frenzy. She caressed his chin. His five o’clock shadow, peppered with gray stubble, gave him the appearance of a bouncer ready to throw out a rowdy client.

The man had haunted her nights for months. That he might be ousted from her unconscious mind by the results of her covert evening search spoke of the severity of the situation in the election office.

“It was a dreadful search with appalling results.” She hadn’t fully wrapped her mind around the discoveries she’d made. Yet.

When she was offered the easy, stress-free, part-time position of finance officer for the upcoming by-election, Liliane couldn’t turn down the opportunity of making a few extra dollars. The job in itself was easy and interesting, and had she not known the rules, questioned the entries, or noticed the inconsistencies; it might have remained stress-free and part-time.

He massaged her back with slow, gentle strokes, working his way down her spine, then up again. “Is that why you look tired and tense? Or is it because you haven’t eaten yet?”

“I need a long shower.” To wash off the dirt she’d unearthed. “I picked up a pizza on my way home. The leftovers are in the fridge, if you’re hungry.”

His eyes shone a stormy shade of gray as he slithered a hand under her shirt. “I am hungry. What would you say if we started with dessert in the shower?”

Lured by the delicious sensations he unleashed, she toyed with his belt buckle. “I love dessert on Sunday nights.”

 

~ * ~

 

Coffee. I need coffee. Liliane regretted not taking the extra five minutes to brew a cup before leaving home.

After living more than three years in this northern Manitoba town, she should have known better than to count on a short lineup at either of the Tim Hortons’ drive-thru locations on a Monday morning.

One day wishful thinking would cause her death.

In the meantime, she ought to stop falling asleep in the wee hours of the night and waking up at dawn, or she wouldn’t survive the week. She wasn’t twenty—or thirty—anymore, though he’d made her feel like a teenager last night.

As she turned right at the intersection, a truck ran the red light, grazing her front bumper and missing her by a hair. A buzz cut hair.

Sweet chocolate, are the cops after you? If not, they should chase you.

In the best of times, Liliane didn’t suffer fools gladly. Today, her patience had drowned at the bottom of a cup of coffee she hadn’t drunk yet.

She parked between the two-story building that housed the new library and the old flat brownish building where the first library was erected more than half a century ago. The old building was scheduled for demolition, but since City Hall hadn’t contracted out the project yet, the council agreed to lease it for two months to the local returning officer.

As Liliane exited her car, a sapphire blue minivan parked beside her, its color sparkling in the sun. She liked the shade. It looked prettier than dirty beige, the only color available when she bought her hatchback on sale two years ago.

Nathalie, the technology officer, emerged from the minivan with a coffee in her hand. “Hey, Lily. How long did you stay last night? And don’t lie to me. I drove by after I went out for supper with Susan and the boys. Your car was here.”

Though they hailed from different walks of life, Liliane and Nathalie shared a friendship that sprang from the four workouts a week they stomached together and the coffee breaks that ensued. Not only was lying to Nathalie not an option, but it was also pointless. Her friend belonged to a restricted group of individuals who dared calling her Lily and who could peel the truth from her.

Liliane leaned against the side of her ugly car. “I needed to go through some documents while no one occupied the office.”

A disapproving look darted from Nathalie’s eyes. “I don’t think I need to remind you how unsafe this part of town is at night, so why on earth didn’t you tell me about your plans? I would have stayed with you.”

Staying late had been a last-minute decision resulting from her cancelled dinner date. She could have informed Nathalie, but Liliane didn’t want to interfere with her friend’s Sunday night ritual. Supper with her daughter and two grandsons.

No point ruining both our evenings. “Next time, I promise to include you, but you can’t tell anyone.”

Her friend’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “Oh golly, are you trying to nail Touchy Feely?”

The aroma from Nathalie’s cup along with the nickname toyed with Liliane’s mind. She needed a cup, soon, before she suffered from precipitated withdrawal. “Who’s Touchy Feely?”

Nathalie stared at her like she’d colored her hair green. Pea green. “Thomas Finch. Our outstanding returning officer. You didn’t know it was the reason every woman calls him TF behind his back?”

It appeared Liliane had made a mistake in believing it was because it corresponded to his initials. Nathalie’s revelations added another layer to the scheme Liliane had unearthed by accident.

A car she didn’t recognize pulled into the parking lot. If they kept chatting outside any longer, they risked attracting someone’s unwelcome attention.

With a tilt of her head, Liliane suggested they proceeded toward the office. “Listen, Nathalie, you and I will need to talk, but in private.”

A conniving smile crossed her friend’s ageless face. “I drove by the Recreation Center this morning. A sign says it’ll re-open tomorrow afternoon. Unless that talk is urgent, we could go Wednesday morning at 5:30. It’ll be quiet. Besides, our last workout dates back two weeks. We both need the exercise, or we’ll have to go shopping for bigger pants.”

Waiting two days didn’t present a problem. By then, Liliane might have a clearer picture of the situation.

“Wednesday sounds good. We’ll talk then.” As the words breezed through Liliane’s lips, a silent groan rumbled in her chest.

A water pipe had burst in the wall of the Recreation Center, wreaking havoc with their training schedules. The time had come to resume their workouts before it hurt too much, but getting up at 5:00 a.m. to go to the gym didn’t sound good. It sounded like a terrible idea. An idea she no doubt would regret on Wednesday morning.

I need coffee. Strong coffee.

 

~ * ~

 

Liliane entered the lobby of the election office behind Nathalie.

Seated at a low desk, which served as a barrier between the lobby and the corridor leading to private offices and conference rooms, the receptionist welcomed them with a gloomy expression. “You’re late, ladies. The meeting started five minutes ago.”

Nathalie threw a quizzical glance in Liliane’s direction. “Did you know we had a meeting?”

“No. I’ll meet you there in a moment.” That neither of them was informed of the meeting raised another flag in Liliane’s mind, but not as flamboyant as the one flapping in front of her.

Her friend ventured into the corridor, and within seconds, disappeared from view.

Liliane approached Gloria’s desk. “What’s wrong? And don’t say nothing.”

The receptionist, an elderly indigenous woman with a mind as sharp and witty as her tongue, had to be one of the most effervescent people Liliane had ever encountered. No matter the time of day or evening, Gloria welcomed everyone, clients and workers alike, with a cheerful voice and grinning face. Unless something bad happened, this morning shouldn’t be an exception.

“Please don’t feel bad, Liliane.” The apologetic look Gloria gave her threw Liliane for a loop. “It’s not your fault. I’m very grateful for the chance you gave me.”

Her brain had paused on not her fault. “What is not my fault?”

“You meant well when you hired me.” There was no mistaking the quivering and disappointment in the receptionist’s voice. “You couldn’t have guessed Mr. Finch promised the job to his sister. I’ll leave when she arrives.”

As understanding dawned on Liliane, it ignited her feisty spirits. “Listen to me carefully, Gloria. Thomas’ sister, whoever she is, isn’t sitting in your chair. I expect to see you here every single morning and you’re not leaving until we close every single night. I hired you because you were the best. You are not going anywhere. Are we clear?”

The older woman sat a bit straighter. “But Mr. Finch—”

“I’ll take care of Thomas.” Regardless of the consequences she might face, Liliane vowed to prevent Thomas from firing Gloria in order to hire his sister. “Don’t worry.”

A genuine smile inched its way across the receptionist’s face. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now, tell me there’s a pot of coffee somewhere in the building?” Before confronting Thomas, Liliane needed coffee, strong coffee, to drown her homicidal impulses.

“Let’s go look in the kitchen.” Though her job description didn’t include making coffee, Gloria took it upon herself to brew a fresh pot every few hours, a thoughtful gesture appreciated by every member of the staff, with the obvious exception of Finch. “If not, I’ll brew another batch and bring you a cup in the conference room.”

 

~ * ~

 

When it involved other people, Thomas Finch couldn’t stand tardiness. He always made a point of being on time, unless he had a good excuse, which his underlings should understand happened frequently to a man in his position.

Through the bathroom window, he’d glimpsed his technology and finance officers chatting together in the parking lot. To his annoyance, the window didn’t open, preventing him from eavesdropping on their conversation, but it would be a pity if an inopportune friendship developed between the two women.

Nathalie entered the conference room as Thomas finished introducing the man on his right.

Had his technology officer kept her mouth shut in the parking lot, she wouldn’t have missed the first five minutes of his meeting. That kind of behavior ought to be nipped in the bud if he didn’t want to lose control of his team.

Standing tall at the end of the long rectangular table, Thomas waited for the woman to sit before addressing the issue. Words sank in better when he towered over his employees. As he readied to speak, Liliane showed up with a cup of coffee in her hand. His new finance officer scrutinized him with an expression he couldn’t decipher.

Irritated by her poise, he indicated an empty chair at the end of the table. “Take a seat, Liliane. You’re late.”

“I prefer to stand.” Her back against the whiteboard, Liliane defied him in front of the others. “And for your information, Thomas, I cannot be late for a meeting I wasn’t informed was taking place this morning. Next time, you should make sure we all receive the memo.”

A deafening silence fell upon the conference room.

Thomas could hear the furious beating of his heart with every ragged breath he took. “You’re out of line, Liliane. If you don’t want to lose your job, you better learn to watch your mouth.”

“Well, since we’re talking about jobs, I’d like to remind you of a chapter in the rulebook. You know, the one about hiring family members to work in the office?” The sultry tone with which she spoke bordered on insolence. “The rulebook does say you’re allowed to hire your wife, or your son, or your sister, but only in the absence of qualified applicants and with Election Headquarters’ approval.”

The intense desire to teach her a lesson surged inside his chest, but he curbed his impatience. In the past fifty-five years, Thomas had dealt with stronger women than her, and in the end, they had all surrendered to his will. “I’ve been returning officer for more than twenty-five years. I hope you’re not planning on quoting the entire rulebook back to me.”

“Not all the chapters, Thomas, just the sections you seem to have forgotten.” The woman’s audacity grated on his nerves. “If you recall, you were golfing the day we hired the receptionist. You may not be aware of all her qualifications, so let me enlighten you. Gloria isn’t only smart, friendly, and computer savvy, she can also operate the archaic phone system they installed, she speaks English, French, Cree, and Dene, which comes handy when dealing with the many First Nations in our district, and she’s willing to work seven days a week. In other words, she’s more than qualified. Don’t you agree?”

Liliane is defying me in front of the staff so the indigenous woman can keep her job as receptionist? Thomas couldn’t decide if he’d overestimated or underestimated his new finance officer, or if she was misguided or foolish. “Of course I do, but we can’t give her a raise if that’s the reason you’re bringing this up. So, is there anything else, or can we go back to this meeting?”

Liliane’s gaze pierced through him like a dagger. Still, she ought to realize he had won the argument. Though his sister became an unfortunate casualty, this little incident didn’t cause any damage to his leadership or his reputation.

“Well, since we solved Liliane’s problem—whatever her problem was—let’s move on to the next one.” Thomas returned his attention to the employees seated around the table. “Over the weekend, I was informed of the upcoming visit of an electoral observer from Headquarters. In my opinion, this is a waste of our time and the taxpayers’ money. We’re doing a great job and we don’t need some bureaucrat from back east looking over our shoulders for a week, do we?”

The no-no’s whispered around the table pleased Thomas.

“Keep in mind, the man is only an observer. He doesn’t have permission to interfere with your jobs. You don’t owe him any explanations, or any answers, and you can refuse him access to your private offices. To stop him from disrupting the normal operations of this office, avoid him.” Though Thomas couldn’t deny him entrance to the election office, he’d be damned if he’d let the unwelcome visitor meddle in affairs that didn’t concern him. “Leonard and I will do our best to keep him busy and out of your hair. Any questions?”

“Two questions.” Liliane raised her cup. “First, when will this observer arrive? And second, who’s Leonard?”

The mild bursts of laughter echoing in the room didn’t amuse Thomas.

“Unless his plane is hijacked or shot down, the observer should make an appearance sometime today.” More chuckles resonated in the room, but this time, he joined in before gesturing toward his right-hand man. “Now, Leonard, if you could please rise and introduce yourself. Again.”

The man seated at his right stood up. “I’m Leonard Hassler, the assistant returning officer. I will keep Mr. Observer occupied.”

A brazen smile tugged at Liliane’s lips, a smile that unsettled Thomas.

Steps resounded in the corridor.

“Mr. Finch?” Gloria’s silver head peeked around the doorframe. “There’s a gentleman here to see you. His name is Damien Godfrey. He says he’s from Headquarters.”

“Thanks, Gloria. Leonard and I will be right there.” Thomas dismissed the receptionist with a swat of the hand. “The rest of you, get back to work.”

Time to throw the watchdog a few bones. With any luck, the observer would choke on them.

 

Chapter Two

 

 

~Blood is thicker than integrity.~

 

She may have saved Gloria’s job, but Liliane had the uncanny feeling she’d made a dangerous and powerful enemy. Every fiber of her being warned her to consider her next move carefully.

Her private office, furnished with a metal desk, a few chairs, and a filing cabinet for which she possessed the only key, was located at the end of a dimly lit corridor nicknamed The Catacombs. Her lone neighbor consisted of Nathalie. They’d chosen the two remote offices on purpose so the loud noise coming from the revision and training rooms wouldn’t disturb them.

To safeguard her privacy, Liliane kept her door closed while she worked. To her astonishment, sounds still traveled but in more rudimentary and covert manner.

Thomas’ and Damien’s voices carried through the air ducts and exited above her head, clear as a bell.

Liliane suspected Leonard also attended the meeting, but so far the assistant returning officer hadn’t uttered a word. On the other hand, if Thomas believed he could blindside Damien with his sweet talk, he faced a rude awakening.

The men were talking about Damien’s flight and how long he had to wait to retrieve his luggage last night after the police evacuated the airport. The somewhat inaccurate but colorful account that Damien provided of the bomb squad and their sniffer dogs was entertaining, though not as entertaining as Thomas’ sympathetic remarks.

The returning officer couldn’t have cared less if the plane had crashed, and yet, he sounded so sincere and appalled by Damien’s difficulties. At this rate, Liliane would need another coffee to wash down the disgust coating her throat.

She turned on the music on her iPhone. Notes from the seventies rose into the air. The intent behind the music wasn’t to drown out the words coming from Thomas’ office but to cover the ones emanating from hers. She had the tendency to think aloud, a bad habit that could prove not only risky but also detrimental to her position.

A knock on her door diverted her attention from the objectionable request form on her desk. “Come in.”

The door opened.

“Sorry to disturb you, Liliane.” The recruitment officer, a retired schoolteacher whose little electoral black book contained more names than a dating site, took a tentative step inside. “May I talk to you for a minute?”

Amanda’s unexpected visit saved Liliane the trouble of summoning her to her office in the next ten minutes. “Sure. Close the door behind you and take a seat.”

To prevent anyone from eavesdropping, Liliane cranked up the music another notch. The door closed and Amanda pulled up a folding chair across from Liliane’s desk.

Seated at the edge of her seat with her back erect, the recruitment officer fidgeted with her hands on her lap. “I need the money to book the flight to Sininen Lake.”

Sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, a form requesting twelve hundred and fifty dollars from the petty cash had landed on Liliane’s desk. Not on the floor, which often occurred when someone slipped a sheet under her closed door, but on top of her desk, which implied someone stepped into her office.

Aside from herself, only one other individual possessed a key to her office. Thomas Finch.

Since she kept the door of her office locked at all times during her absence, only he could have sneaked in the request form on her desk despite Amanda’s signature at the bottom.

“Let me see if I understand the exact nature of the situation, Amanda.” Liliane understood too well, but she wanted to see Amanda’s reaction as she laid the facts on the table. “We have a poll in the remote indigenous community of Sininen Lake, a community that can only be accessed by plane during the summer, right?”

The petite woman granted her a curt nod. “It’s a beautiful place to go fishing in August, Liliane, this is why I need to book the flight early.”

On Sunday afternoon, Liliane had phoned Mimi Smalltoes at her home in Sininen Lake. The indigenous woman had been on the election payroll for the past seventeen years. From what Mimi told her, Sininen Lake was more than a beautiful place, it was Fishing Heaven. Tourists paid top dollars to fly in and stay in the rustic lodges along the lake.

Hoping to put Amanda at ease, Liliane leaned back in her chair. “On Friday, you gave me the names of the two individuals scheduled to man that poll. I assume that hasn’t changed?”

Her visitor clasped her hands together and stilled. “No change. Mimi Smalltoes will be the DRO. She’s done it for the past four elections and she works as secretary at Sininen School where the polling station is located. Her daughter Agnes will be her poll clerk.”

“I see.” Mustering her best poker face, Liliane picked up the request from her desk. “If I read this correctly, you want two hundred and fifty dollars to fly Graysen Triplett and the ballot box to Sininen Lake on the Friday prior to the Monday election. Plus another two hundred and fifty dollars to fly him back with the ballot box on the following Wednesday. And then another one hundred and fifty dollars per day to pay for food and lodging. Did you know I’m not authorized to use the petty cash to pay for a twelve-hundred-and-fifty-dollar trip?”

The petty cash account consisted of fifteen hundred dollars. The returning officer wasn’t supposed to give his finance officer more than a few hundred dollars at a time, and Liliane couldn’t spend more than two hundred and fifty dollars on a single item. Nonetheless, Thomas handed her the full amount last week. Liliane suspected he wanted to ensure all the money was available to fulfill that specific request.

“I know, Liliane, but...” Amanda chewed on her lower lip as she pointed at the request form on the desk. “The plane only flies on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It’s not like we have a choice. If you enter each amount on a separate line, it’ll be fine. That’s how the former finance officer listed the expense.”

Someone had devised a clever and effective way to circumvent the rule by itemizing each component of the trip and keeping them within the allotted amount. Still, Liliane was disappointed no one at Headquarters had questioned the expenses, or its justification, during the last election.

“Out of curiosity, who was that former finance officer?” Liliane had come across a name, a woman’s name, but it didn’t ring a bell.

“Celine Norton.” The name rolled off the recruitment officer’s tongue without hesitation, suggesting she knew Celine. “She’s Thomas’ niece. I’m sure he would have hired her back if she hadn’t been on a Mediterranean cruise.”

Another family member? Her returning officer’s blatant disregard for the rules continued to astound Liliane. “To be honest with you, Amanda, I did some digging. During the last election, Graysen Triplett flew to Sininen Lake for five days, but he also worked at a polling station in town—while he was in Sininen Lake.”

Had the guy been named John Smith, Liliane might have believed it consisted of two different individuals, but not with such a unique name.

Blood drained from Amanda’s face, but she remained silent.

“While you ponder the wisdom of telling me the truth, let me show you something else.” From the top drawer of her desk, Liliane retrieved the list of workers that Amanda recruited last week and placed it on top of the request form, facing her visitor.

“This is your current list of workers. You have Graysen Triplett working in town and flying to Sininen Lake. He must be quite an extraordinary man to be at two places, hundreds of kilometers apart, at the same time.”

A kind, soft-spoken divorced woman, Amanda liked to visit Liliane’s studio on Sundays. Liliane could have sworn her faithful patron didn’t have a single crooked bone in her body. It seemed so out of character for the petite woman to be involved in a deceitful scheme.

Money couldn’t be the motive, not when Amanda liked to remind Liliane she could afford to buy a painting every month with the generous alimony she received from her cheating ex-husband. The reason behind her patron’s strange behavior intrigued Liliane more than the details of the scheme she’d pieced together thanks to Mimi Smalltoes’ excellent memory.

Liliane couldn’t recall the names of the people she met yesterday, so she envied Mimi’s ability to remember the name of the man who delivered her the ballot box more than three years ago. A man whose name didn’t resemble Graysen Triplett.

“Nobody gets hurt, Liliane, and it’s not your money.” Amanda cast her eyes down. “Why does it matter?”

Because it’s illegal, unethical, and wrong? Because I put my signature at the bottom of the darn form every time I authorize an expense? Liliane took a deep breath to rein in her aggravation before it took possession of her mouth. “What’s so special about Roger Finch that you’re willing to risk your reputation to send him to Sininen Lake under a false name?”

Amanda’s mouth opened and closed like the fish in Sininen Lake. “He...you...it’s not...you wouldn’t understand.”

“I understand, Amanda. Thomas Finch owns a lucrative construction company, but he’s using you to give Roger a free fishing trip.” As soon as she heard the name Roger Finch coming out of Mimi’s mouth, Liliane presumed the man was related to her unscrupulous returning officer. “Who’s Roger anyway? His son? His brother? His nephew?” Same last name. It couldn’t be a coincidence.

The small window above the filing cabinet seemed to have captured her visitor’s attention, but there would be no escape, neither through the window nor the door, until Liliane uncovered the entire truth.

“Amanda?” Despite Liliane’s best effort, her patience wore thin. “Who’s Roger?”

The recruitment officer slouched in her chair. “His dad. He likes fishing.”

Amanda’s faint answer crawled into Liliane’s ears then dissipated in the music before reaching any ducts.

“His dad? Like in his father?” Keeping her voice low and even, Liliane sought a lengthier explanation. “Isn’t the old man richer than his son?”

“I know they both can afford to pay for the trip, but for Thomas it’s a game.” A despondent groan rattled Amanda’s throat. “I have to play along. My son works for his construction company. He has a young family. He can’t lose his job.”

So it’s not bribery—it’s blackmail. Liliane’s aversion for her returning officer reached a new high. “I understand your predicament, Amanda, but the game has to end. Let me make a few phone calls. I promise I’ll find a solution that won’t put your son’s job in jeopardy. In the meantime, if Thomas asks any questions, tell him I’m taking care of it. Okay?”

An invisible weight seemed to lift from the recruitment officer’s shoulders as she sprang to her feet. “Thanks, Liliane.”

 

~ * ~

 

The thought of stuffing the electoral chatterbox into a suitcase with a ticking watch, locking him up in the trunk of his rental car, and calling the bomb squad so they could blow him up as a preventive measure crossed Thomas’ mind.

He could swear Damien didn’t just like to talk, he loved to listen to himself.

In the last hour, Thomas had learned more about the man than he ever cared to know. He didn’t want to hear any more details about the observer’s turbulent flight, his delayed luggage, his rental car mixed up, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, his acrimonious divorce, or anything else.

In an ironic way, Thomas supposed he should be grateful that Damien didn’t seem the least interested in observing him, or his employees, in action.

A knock on the door silenced the unwelcome observer.

Peace and quiet at last. Thankful for the interruption, Thomas invited whoever stood on the other side to enter.

“Liliane?” Of all his employees, she was the last one Thomas wanted to see within talking distance of the chatterbox.

“Sorry for the intrusion, Thomas, but I wanted to give you an update on Sininen Lake.” Leaving the door open, she leaned against the doorframe. “You’ll love it.”

Thomas doubted it, but for her sake, the woman had better not screw this one up. “Can it wait till—”

“Fancy meeting you here, Lily.” The observer perked up like a child on a sugar rush. “We need to grab lunch and catch up.”

To Thomas’ consternation, Damien had not only cut him off and set his sights on Liliane, but it sounded like he knew her.

“I’m free today.” A warm smile illuminated her eyes when she looked at the chatterbox. “Are you paying?”

The woman’s attitude irked Thomas as much as it alarmed him since all she’d ever given him was the cold shoulder. “Sorry to rain on your little reunion, Liliane, but Leonard is taking Damien out for lunch and a sightseeing tour.”

“Sightseeing? Then I better make it quick in case you have things to discuss with Damien before he disappears for the day.” An indecipherable expression crossed her face. “When I saw the requisition form on my desk, I contacted Northern Key Aviation. For forty dollars each way, they will fly the ballot box in the cockpit with the pilot to Sininen Lake where Mimi Smalltoes, the DRO, will pick it up in person. After the election, they’ll repeat the process in reverse. The aviation company is fully insured and bonded. Therefore, it becomes redundant to send someone on the plane with the ballot box. It also saves us over a thousand dollars. I thought you’d be happy to know I made the arrangement and prepaid Northern Key for their services before they change their mind or jack up their price.”

As the words sank in, Thomas fought the urge to lurch at her and knot her red ponytail around her neck. The air of satisfaction enveloping her choked him. Shocked by her audacity, he struggled with his vocal chords. The woman would pay for her defiance and interference. He would shred her reputation to pieces, one painful thread at a time.

“A woman who’s not afraid to save money. Wait till I report this one to Headquarters.” The glee in the observer’s eyes as he leaned in his chair spoke of his approval and admiration. “They will love it, Lily.”

Their behaviors fueled Thomas’ rage. He swore the woman would taste his revenge as intensely as he would savor her downfall. “Very good, Liliane. Now would you excuse us, please?”

When his finance officer turned on her heels, low heels, and left his office without uttering another word, Thomas vowed never to underestimate her again.

 

Chapter Three

 

 

~Beware the purple minions!~

 

As the day progressed, Thomas’ aberrant behavior intensified Liliane’s apprehensions. The excessive politeness he displayed toward every employee in the office clashed with the obvious efforts he made to avoid her.

Something toxic brewed and the creepy feeling she might end up being the one boiled alive in that deadly mixture heightened her sense of self-preservation.

A week earlier, Damien had phoned her late at night. Though she’d stayed in touch with him after the last general election, they hadn’t talked in months. To hear his voice had been a surprise, a pleasant surprise that had morphed into an ominous affair. Headquarters suspected something was amiss with the way Thomas ran his elections. Under the guise of posing as an observer, Damien had been instructed to conduct a discreet investigation.

Some entries had raised red flags in her mind before Damien contacted her, but Liliane had lacked evidence so she didn’t disclose, ask, or volunteer any information over the phone, and neither did he.

Her primary goal wasn’t to get Thomas arrested or charged, it was to prevent him from orchestrating any more dishonest schemes so if—or when—he got caught, he wouldn’t be able to blame or drag Liliane, or any of his other employees, down with him.

Therefore, in order to protect Thomas’ scapegoats, Liliane needed to protect Thomas from his own schemes.

The irony left a bitter taste in her mouth that became sourer by the second. Steps resounded in The Catacombs and someone slid some daily timesheets under her closed door without bothering to knock and give them to her in person.

Liliane picked them up. The scribble at the bottom of the timesheets bore a strong resemblance to the revision supervisor’s signature.

Here goes another confrontation. Liliane exited her office and headed past the conference room into a larger room where three of the four walls were plastered with maps of the electoral district.

The revision supervisor’s desk, which Sophie occupied, faced four workstations from which revising agents dealt with voters’ inquiries and registrations. At the moment, two agents worked at those stations. Liliane recognized both of them. While she verified their identities matched the names on the oversized schedule taped on the wall behind Sophie, Liliane also glanced at the only name penned down for last evening. Laurie Milton.

“Is there a problem, Liliane?” The revision supervisor stared at Liliane with striking blue eyes accentuated by long black eyelashes, subtle makeup, and short stylish golden hair. The sleeveless designer dress she wore put Liliane’s gray capris and teal top to shame.

“Yes. Can I see you in my office, please?” Unless time was of the essence, Liliane preferred to discuss private matters in the privacy of her office.

“Now?” Sophie’s innocent expression didn’t fool Liliane.

Everyone in town knew Sophie was married to one of the sweetest guys alive, a truck driver named Ethan. Her husband doted on her and their nine-year-old twin boys, but if the rumors were to be believed, other guys warmed up her bed while Ethan traveled out-of-town.

Liliane never paid much attention to gossips, but it changed the evening she hosted a wine and cheese event at her gallery. Some guests she knew better than others, and not all of them showed interest in her collection, but when Sophie asked if she could look at the paintings in her studio, Liliane didn’t object. Her small gallery couldn’t accommodate all her artwork, so she rotated them on a regular basis. Most of her patrons were aware she kept the other ones in the studio at the back. At that moment, Sophie’s request didn’t raise any suspicion.

Ten minutes later, Liliane had ventured into the studio to fetch a new receipt book and stumbled on something she would never paint on her canvas. A disheveled blonde, her skirt hiked up, entertaining a stranger who’d misplaced his pants. While the couple didn’t spot her, Liliane wished she hadn’t seen them. She could have happily lived without that image clogging her memory.

Liliane stifled a sigh. “Yes, Sophie. Now.”

The two revising agents seemed too focused on their tasks to notice the departure of their supervisor.

Back in her office, Liliane closed the door, turned her music on, and invited Sophie to sit.

The blonde woman crossed her legs and leaned back in the chair facing Liliane’s desk. “Why am I here, Liliane? Is there a problem?”

“You could say that.” In the last week or so, it felt like her problems had multiplied faster than vermin and were as hard, if not harder, to exterminate. “At what time did you leave last night?”

“Around 7:00 p.m.” The revision supervisor tapped long red nails adorned with silver stars on the armrest. “Why?”

The timesheet Sophie had submitted for herself said 7:00 p.m. and Liliane had no reason to believe she’d lied by more than a few minutes. She presented Milton’s timesheet to Sophie who glanced over it.

“Laurie Milton? She’s my neighbor. She worked from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. last night. I just found her timesheet on her chair, so I slipped it under your door. She must have been in a hurry to—” Sophie stared at her with eyes as large as saucers. “Don’t tell me she left before 9:00 and there was no one to answer the phones? I’m so going to fire her and build that fence between our houses.”

Unlike her wedding vows, Sophie took her work seriously, and she excelled at it. Her outburst sounded genuine, and confirmed Liliane’s latest suspicion.

“Relax, Sophie.” Liliane never intended to start a neighborhood war. “Laurie didn’t sneak out early. She even gave Gloria a ride home at the end of the evening.”

Sophie heaved an audible sigh of relief. “Good, because between you and me, I wasn’t too sure about her commitment, but she was the only one who volunteered to work the graveyard shift so I hired her. We’ll see if the guy I booked for next week to work with her bothers to show up. I have even less faith in him. If things get busier and he stands me up, I’ll stay till 9:00. Ethan and the boys are leaving on a two-week camping trip. It’s not like I have anywhere else to be.”

In light of Sophie’s repeated admission that one lone agent worked the graveyard shift, Liliane placed a second timesheet on top of Laurie’s. “From what you’re telling me, I take it Rose Cartier didn’t show up last night? Was her timesheet stuck to Laurie’s? Did you slip it under my door by mistake?”

The supervisor opened and closed her mouth a few times without making a sound while she seemed to ponder what to say.

“Sophie, if you’re thinking of lying to me, don’t waste your breath.” Don’t insult my intelligence and don’t waste my time either. The revision supervisor wasn’t the fish that Liliane wanted to fry. “We both know Rose Cartier didn’t work last night, or any other nights.”

No training was ever recorded for Rose, no oaths were ever signed, and the woman wasn’t on Liliane’s payroll. No agent started working without meeting these three requirements.

No doubts existed in Liliane’s mind that Thomas hid behind that new scheme. Did he really believe I wouldn’t notice? Or that I would blindly add Rose to the payroll?

Sophie leaned forward. “I don’t expect you to understand, Liliane, so just be a darling and pay her, would you? It’ll make Thomas happy.”

On the contrary, Liliane understood. She understood too well. As a headache spread its tendrils, seeding murderous thoughts into her brain, her iPhone vibrated once in her pocket. Someone had sent her a text message, but reading it would have to wait. “Sophie, I’m not a darling, yours or anyone else’s. And pleasing Thomas is so far down my list, it’s not even on the same page. He’s blackmailing you, isn’t he?”

A look of horrified panic gripped the blonde woman’s face. “The weasel showed you the picture, didn’t he? I’m going to kill him. You can’t tell anyone, Liliane. I beg you. If Ethan finds out, he’ll leave me and take the boys with him.”

Her imagination didn’t need to run away too far to understand the kind of picture the distraught revision supervisor referred to, and having guessed right didn’t bring Liliane any satisfaction. “Your secret is safe with me, but I want to know the story behind that timesheet.”

“The girl is a college student, a young and pretty drama student. Thomas hired her for the summer. You could say she’s in charge of his private entertainment.” Sophie’s gaze traveled around the room. “Yesterday, he came to me with her timesheet. He threatened to show the picture to Ethan if I didn’t sign it. I knew it was wrong, but what else was I supposed to do?”

The temptation to act on those deadly thoughts taking shape in Liliane’s mind grew stronger and stronger. What incentive could a college girl have to date a married, fifty-something bald man who avoided the gym like a pest? It couldn’t be sex. Not even with a dozen blue pills. It had to be money.

That money is not coming from my electoral budget.

By the same token, Liliane couldn’t let Sophie take the fall while Thomas suffered no consequences.

Shoot me, someone.

Liliane could have sworn damage control wasn’t included in the finance officer’s job description. “You did what Thomas asked you to do, Sophie. You signed the sheet and gave it to me. You can go back to work as if nothing happened.”

A weight seemed to lift from Sophie’s shoulders. “I owe you, Liliane.”

After the incident at the wine and cheese event, it might be best if Liliane didn’t keep a tally sheet of IOUs. “Then do me a favor, would you, and let me know if Thomas tries one of his little schemes again.”

“I promise to report anything suspicious. Thank you.” The blonde woman stood. “Will that be all?”

Liliane dismissed her with a short nod. After the door closed behind Sophie, she picked up a turquoise pen from her favorite novelty coffee mug. A yellow minion with one eye was pictured on the cup along with the quote You don’t need to be crazy to work here, we’ll train you.

“I’m trained alright. Now let’s see...” Deep in thought, she nibbled on the end of her pen. “How am I going to word this?”

A few minutes later, she wrote a note on Rose’s timesheet.

 

Rose Cartier didn’t show up for any training sessions or for any of the above-mentioned shifts. Therefore, she wasn’t added to the payroll.

 

Liliane signed her name in turquoise, then filed the timesheet in a special folder. If Thomas ever inquired why his summer playgirl didn’t get paid, Liliane would pull out the timesheet and force him to override her note with his own explanation and signature before she agreed to process it.

Many adjectives described Thomas, but stupid didn’t belong to that list. He wouldn’t risk being caught, which was the reason he used other people to do his dirty work.

“One problem solved. Now, who wants a piece of me?” She retrieved her iPhone to read the message she received while talking with Sophie.

It came from Damien.

 

I’m at car rental agency, corner of 8th & Wilson. Engine problem. We need to talk. Want to go for supper while I wait for a new car?

 

Though the man didn’t ask, his message implied he also wanted her to go pick him up across town. She had planned on going home for a quiet supper, not dine out, but they needed to talk. For both their sakes, it might be preferable if it didn’t rouse Thomas’ suspicion.

She answered him back.

 

Meet you there in 20 minutes.

 

A year ago, an East Indian restaurant had opened across the street from the car rental agency. It would be a discreet place to hold an impromptu meeting.

 

~ * ~

 

Nathalie’s office faced Liliane’s in The Catacombs.

Its location displeased Thomas. He would have preferred for his technology officer to choose the empty office next to his so he could visit her without bumping into Liliane. No matter which way he turned, he kept crossing paths with his finance officer.

If only his private secretary hadn’t suggested Liliane when he told her he sought a replacement for his niece. Celine, why did you have to book that cruise? Couldn’t you wait another month?

When he overheard Liliane tell Gloria that she was headed home for supper, Thomas took advantage of her absence to venture into The Catacombs and pay Nathalie a visit.

The sophisticated woman used to teach basic information technology at the local college, but after her husband suffered a stroke last fall, Nathalie quit her job to nurse him back to health. Despite her care, she failed to prevent a second stroke. From what Thomas gathered, her husband died on a cold winter day back in January while Nathalie was out grocery shopping.

Convincing her to ...

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