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          Greed and a Mistress (A Jackie Harlan Mystery)   
 

Mark Augustus Barrett added his left hand to his right to hold the gun steady, and crept closer and closer to the end of the bed. If he was going to do it, he wanted to make certain he did it right the first time...if he was going to do it.

*

It was dark in his house too when Mark made his way up the stairs and quietly removed his clothing so his wife wouldn’t wake up. He was not successful.

As soon as he climbed into bed beside her, Holly asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I just needed a drink of water.”

“What time is it?”

He looked at the illuminated digital clock on the table next to the bed. “Almost four. Go back to sleep.”

“Okay.” She started to curl up in his arms, but he was all sweaty. She raised up on her elbows and looked at him. “Mark, where have you been?”

“Right here. I just got too hot and needed a drink.”

She felt his forehead, but he didn’t have a fever. “Are you sick?”

“No, sweetheart, go back to sleep.”

Reluctantly, she turned over and settled back down. With two little ones to care for, Holly needed all the rest she could get. Even so, she couldn’t go back to sleep. Either Mark had a mistress, or something bad had happened, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know which. The last time he got that sweaty, he tried to steal a car and almost got caught. He promised not to do that again, but Mark was not very good at keeping his promises.

Lying on his back beside her, Mark was still sweating profusely, and his eyes were wide open. They remained open until his alarm went off at five thirty. He turned it off, got out of bed, and went to take a much needed shower.

On her side of the bed, Holly only pretended to be asleep and opened her eyes too. There were signs that he was being unfaithful, but life was hard enough living on a strict budget. Sometimes, she didn’t think they would make it to the next payday. Somehow they managed, but what would she do if she left her husband? She had no skills to speak of, no job to fall back on, and the cost of a babysitter for two small children was outrageous.

Holly knew the girls would be awake soon, so she threw the covers back and sat on the edge of the bed. That’s when she spotted the pile of dark clothing on the floor and it made her mad. She didn’t recognize them and they were certainly not the clothes he was wearing the previous morning when he left the house. It was just like him to charge them on a credit card that they couldn’t make the payments on. At length, she sighed, ignored the clothes, and when downstairs.

*

He was still in the shower when Holly finished making his breakfast, and still there when she got her two toddler daughters dressed and in highchairs. She sat between her children, handed the oldest a piece of toast, and started feeding the six-month-old a small spoon full of baby cereal in milk. His bacon and eggs were getting cold, but she didn’t care. Nor did she care to accuse him of anything, especially the first thing in the morning. He would deny it and she was too tired to fight.

The Barrett home was a two-story tract house with an unfinished basement. It had the exact same floor plan as dozens of other houses in the neighborhood. Built on a small lot, every third house had a slightly different exterior, but the prefabricated stairs, walls, roofs, and even the plumbing was exactly the same. Someday, if they could ever afford it, Holly hoped to get rid of the mauve colored walls and trim that was in her kitchen. She thought it was a stupid, unwelcoming color for a kitchen. Still, it was better than the dull red in some of the other houses. It was of that she decided to think about, instead of her husband’s unfaithfulness.

When Mark finally came downstairs, he was dressed for work. As if he didn’t have a care in the world, he nonchalantly sat down at the table, started eating his cold bacon and eggs, and pretended to be in a happy mood. She could see right through his façade and wondered, as she often did, just how stupid he truly thought she was. His meaningless chatter was supposed to keep her from asking him about the night before. He needn’t have bothered.

In his shirt pocket, a cellphone rang.

Completely surprised, she asked, “You have a cellphone?”

The color seemed to drain out of his face, as he abruptly stood up and walked into the living room. Holly glanced at her oldest daughter, handed the youngest a crust of toast, and then crept closer to the doorway. When she peeked around the corner, her husband had his back to her. She moved to the center of the doorway and folded her arms.

“I couldn’t do it,” Mark whispered. “What?” After a long pause, he said, “Yes, I hear you.” He disconnected the call, put the phone back in his pocket, grabbed his briefcase, and walked to the front door. As though he just remembered he had a wife, he glanced back and smiled at her. “I’m off to work. Love you,” he said as he opened the front door and then closed it behind him.

“You forgot your breakfast,” she muttered. Holly hung her head for a moment and then went back to the table. “How are we supposed to pay for a cellphone?” Her two-year-old looked puzzled, and it made Holly smile in spite of the sick feeling she had in the pit of her stomach. She pulled Mark’s breakfast plate closer, picked up a piece of bacon and took a bite.

Mrs. Holly Barrett did not know it, yet, but paying for a cellphone service would soon be the least of her problems.

*

Portland, Oregon had everything a big city should have. It was situated approximately halfway between Mt. Hood, a dormant volcano, and the Pacific Ocean. In 2012, it was the twenty-ninth most populated city in the United States. Built on both sides of the Willamette River, a tributary of the Columbia River, it was a sprawling metropolis that offered employment, and plenty of entertainment for the over two million residents. Portland featured annual celebrations such as the Rose Festival, Dragon Boat Races, the Blues Festival, a Beer festival and for those that preferred it, a Chamber Music Festival. The climate was normally moderate, the wealthy lived in the Pine Lakes area, and the state normally suffered only minor earthquakes.