Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard


  Today, she would have her inaugural grass-cutting. She could barely wait to feel the power of that red monster pulsing under her hands as it decapitated all those blades of grass. She had always been a sucker for red machinery.

  First things first, though. She had to make a run to Wal-Mart and buy a new trash can for the jerk. A promise was a promise, and Jaine always tried to keep her word.

  A quick bowl of cereal later, she pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, stuck her feet in a pair of sandals, and was on her way.

  Who knew a metal trash can would be so hard to find?

  Wal-Mart had only the plastic kind in stock. She invested in one for herself, but didn’t feel she had the right to change her neighbor’s type of trash can. From there she drove to a home-and-garden supply store, but struck out there, too. If she had bought her own metal can she would have known where to find another one, but it had been a housewarming present from her mother—that was Mom, Queen of the Practical Gift.

  By the time she finally located a large metal trash can, at a hardware store—well, duh—it was nine o’clock and the temperature was already edging out of warm into uncomfortable. If she didn’t get the grass mowed soon, she would have to wait until sundown for the heat to abate. Deciding that grocery shopping could wait, she wedged the can into her minuscule backseat and headed south on Van Dyke until she reached Ten Mile Road, then turned right. Minutes later she turned onto her street and smiled at the neat, older houses nestled under their mature shade trees.

  A few of the houses had tricycles and bicycles on the front lawns. These older neighborhoods were seeing an influx of younger couples as they discovered the reasonable price of the aging houses. Instead of disintegrating, the houses were receiving face-lifts and remodels; in a few years, the price of real estate would shoot up again, but for now this area was just right for people just starting out.

  As she got out of the car, the neighbor on the other side of her house walked over to the waist-high white picket fence separating the properties and waved. “Good morning!” Mrs. Kulavich called.

  “Good morning,” Jaine replied. She had met the pleasant old couple the day she moved in, and Mrs. Kulavich had brought her a nice thick pot of stew the next day, with fragrant homemade rolls. If only the jerk on the other side could have been more like the Kulavichs, Jaine would have been in seventh heaven, though she couldn’t even begin to picture him bringing her homemade rolls.

  She walked over to the fence for a neighborly chat. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Thank God for weather, because the world would be hard up for a conversational gambit without it.

  “Oh, my, it’s going to be a scorcher.” Mrs. Kulavich beamed at her and brandished a trowel in one gloved hand. “I have to do my gardening early, before it gets too hot.”

  “I had the same idea about mowing my lawn this morning.” Others were of the same mind, she noticed. Now that she was paying attention, she could hear the roar of a lawn mower three doors up from Mrs. Kulavich and another across the street.

  “Smart girl. Take care not to get too hot; my George always wets a towel and puts it on the back of his neck when he mows, though our grandsons help him with the mowing and he doesn’t do it as often as he used to.” She winked. “I think he cranks up the old mower now just because he’s in the mood to do something manly.”

  Jaine smiled and started to excuse herself, but something occurred to her and she turned back to the old lady. “Mrs. Kulavich, do you know the man who lives on the other side of me?” What if the jerk had lied to her? What if he wasn’t really a cop? She could just see him having a good laugh at her expense, while she tiptoed around and tried to be nice to him.

  “Sam? My, yes, I’ve known him all his life. His grandparents used to live there, you know. Lovely people. I was so glad when Sam moved in after his grandmother finally passed last year. I feel much safer having a policeman so close by, don’t you?”

  Well, that shot that theory in the ass. Jaine managed a smile. “Yes, of course.” She started to say something about the strange hours he kept, but saw the gleam in Mrs. Kulavich’s bright blue eyes and bit back the words. The last thing she needed was for her elderly neighbor to think she had any interest in the jerk and maybe tell him, since Mrs. Kulavich was obviously on good terms with him. She took care of that by adding, “I thought he might be a drug dealer or something.”

  Mrs. Kulavich looked scandalized. “Sam, a drug dealer? Oh, my. No, he would never do anything like that.”

  “That’s a relief.” Jaine smiled again. “I suppose I’d better start mowing before it gets much hotter.”

  “Be sure to drink plenty of water,” Mrs. Kulavich called after her.

  “I will.”

  Well, drat, Jane thought as she wrestled the trash can out of her backseat. The jerk was a cop; he hadn’t lied. There went her dream of seeing him hauled away in handcuffs.

  She deposited the can by his back porch, then released the plastic can she had bought for herself from the trunk. If the can hadn’t been plastic, she never could have gotten it in there, but plastic compressed. When she opened the trunk, it sprang at her like something alive. She put the can behind her small kitchen stoop, neatly out of sight from the street, then went inside and quickly changed into shorts and a halter top. That was what suburban ladies wore to mow their lawns, wasn’t it? Then she remembered her older neighbors, and changed the halter top for a T-shirt; she didn’t want to give some old gent a heart attack.

  She felt a thrill of anticipation as she unlocked the padlock on the garage doors and slipped inside, fumbling until she reached the switch that turned on the single overhead light. Her dad’s pride and joy sat there, completely covered by a custom-made canvas tarp, lined with felt so it wouldn’t scratch the paint. Damn, she wished he had left it at David’s. The car wasn’t as much trouble as BooBoo, but she worried about it a lot more.

  The deciding factor in leaving it at her house, she thought, was that her garage still had the old-fashioned double doors rather than a modern garage door that slid up. Her dad worried about the car being seen from the street; she could get into her garage without opening the doors more than the twelve inches required for her to slip through, while everything in David’s double garage was visible every time he raised his door. First chance she got, she was putting in an automatic garage door.

  She had covered her new lawn mower with a sheet so it wouldn’t get dusty. She removed the sheet and stroked her hand over the cool metal. Maybe her lowtech garage wasn’t the deciding factor in her baby-sitting the car; maybe it was because she was the only one of her dad’s children who shared his enthusiasm for cars. She was the one who had hung over the fender of their family sedan, staring into the mysterious mechanical bowels as her dad changed the oil and spark plugs. By the time she was ten, she had been helping him. By the time she was twelve, she had taken over the chore. For a while she had considered going into automotive mechanical engineering, but the training took years and she wasn’t really that ambitious. All she wanted was a job that paid well and that she didn’t hate, and she was as good with numbers as she was with motors. She enjoyed cars; she didn’t want to turn them into a job.

  She wheeled her lawn mower past her dad’s car, taking care not to touch it. The canvas tarp protected it from the ground up, but she didn’t take any chances where that car was concerned. Opening one of the garage doors only enough to let her get the lawn mower out, she ushered her new baby out into the sunlight. The red paint gleamed; the chrome handlebars glistened. Oh, it was pretty.

  At the last minute, she remembered something about the mowing ritual, and moved her car to the street; one had to be careful about accidentally slinging a rock that could break a window or chip a paint job. She looked at the jerk’s car and shrugged; he might notice BooBoo’s paw prints, but he’d never notice another dent in that thing.

  With a happy smile, she fired up the little motor.

  The thing about cutting grass,
she discovered, was that you had an instant sense of achievement. You could see exactly where you had been and what you had accomplished. Her dad and David had always taken care of that chore when she was growing up, much to her relief, because mowing the lawn had looked boring. Only as she had grown older had she seen the lure of having your own grass, and now she felt as if she had finally, at the age of thirty, stepped into full adulthood. She was a home owner. She mowed her lawn. Cool.

  Something tapped her on the shoulder.

  She shrieked and released the lawn mower handles, jumping to one side and whirling to face her attacker. The mower stopped in its tracks.

  The jerk stood there, bloodshot eyes, snarl on his face, dirty clothes: his usual presentation. He reached over and slid the lever on the mower to the off position, and the efficient little engine growled to a stop.

  Silence.

  For about half a second.

  “What in hell did you do that for?” she roared, her face turning red with temper as she stepped closer, unconsciously balling her right hand into a fist.

  “I thought you were trying to quit cussing,” he taunted.

  “You’d drive a saint to cussing!”

  “That let’s you out, doesn’t it?”

  “You’re damn right!”

  He eyed her right hand. “Are you going to use that, or are you going to be reasonable?”

  “What—?” She glanced down and saw that her arm was half-cocked, her fist already drawn back. With great effort she uncurled her fingers. They immediately assumed the fight position again. She really, really wanted to slug him, and she got even angrier because she couldn’t. “Reasonable?” she yelled, stepping even closer. “You want me to be reasonable? You’re the one who scared the hell out of me and turned off my mower!”

  “I’m trying to sleep,” he said, enunciating the words with clear pit stops between each one. “Is it asking too much for a little consideration?”

  She gaped at him. “You act as if I’m out here mowing at dawn. It’s almost ten o’clock! And I’m not the only one who’s committing the high crime of cutting grass. Listen,” she commanded, as the muted roar of neighborhood mowers hummed up and down the street.

  “They aren’t mowing right outside my bedroom window!”

  “So get in bed at a decent hour. It isn’t my fault you stay up most of the night!”

  His face was getting as red as hers. “I’m on a task force, lady! Irregular hours are part of the job. I sleep when I can, which, since you moved in, hasn’t been very damn often!”

  She threw up her hands. “All right! Fine! I’ll finish the job tonight, when it cools down.” She made a shooing motion. “Just stagger on back to bed. I’ll go inside and sit for the next eleven hours. Or will that disturb your beauty rest, too?” she inquired sweetly.

  “Not unless you have firecrackers in your ass,” he snapped, and stalked back into his house.

  There was probably a law against throwing rocks at someone’s house, she thought. Fuming, she wheeled her lawn mower back into the garage, carefully padlocked the doors, then retrieved her car from the curb. She’d like to show him what she could do with a few firecrackers, and she sure wouldn’t be sitting on them.

  She stomped inside and glared at BooBoo, who ignored her while he washed his paws. “A task force,” she growled. “I’m not unreasonable. All he had to do was explain, in a calm voice, and I’d have been glad to put off mowing until later. But nooo, he’d rather make an ass of himself.”

  BooBoo looked at her.

  “Ass isn’t a swear word,” she said defensively. “Besides, it isn’t my fault. I’ll let you in on a secret about our neighbor, BooBoo: Mr. Perfect, he’s not!”

  four

  Jaine managed to get through the weekend without another confrontation with her jerk neighbor and was at work fifteen minutes early in an effort to atone for her Friday lateness, even though she had worked overtime on Friday to make up for it. As she stopped at the gate, the watchman leaned out and eyed the Viper with disapproval. “When’re you going to get rid of the piece of junk and buy a Chevrolet?”

  She heard it almost every day. This was what happened when you worked in the Detroit area in anything remotely connected with the automotive industry. You had to show brand loyalty to whichever of the Big Three directly or indirectly employed you. “When I can afford it,” she replied, as she always did. Never mind that the Viper had cost the earth, even though it was used and had over fifty thousand miles on it when she bought it. “I just bought a house, you know. If my dad hadn’t given this to me, I wouldn’t be driving it.”

  That last was a direct lie, but it tended to get people off her back for a while. Thank God no one here knew who her father was, or they would have known he was a Ford man through and through. He had been insulted when she bought the Viper and never failed to make a few derogatory remarks about it.

  “Yeah, well, your dad should have known better.”

  “He doesn’t know anything about cars.” She tensed, expecting lightning to strike her dead for that whopper.

  She parked the Viper at a back corner of the lot, where it was less likely to get dinged. People at Hammerstead joked that the car was being shunned. She had to admit it was inconvenient, especially during bad weather, but getting wet was better than letting the Viper get injured. Just driving on 1-696 to get to work was enough to give her gray hair.

  Hammerstead occupied a four-story red-brick building with a gray arched portico and six curving steps leading up to impressive double doors. That entrance, however, was used exclusively by visitors. All the employees entered by a metal side door with an electronic lock into a narrow, puke green hallway, on which were the offices of maintenance and electrical, and a dark, dank room labeled “Storage.” Just what was stored there, Jaine didn’t want to know.

  At the end of the puke green hallway were three steps that led up to another metal door. This one opened onto a gray-carpeted hall that ran the length of the building, front to back, and off which offices and other hallways branched like veins. The two lower floors were reserved for the computer nerds, those strange and irreverent beings who talked in a foreign language about bytes and USB ports. Access to these floors was limited; one had to have an employee’s access card to get into the puke green hallway, then another to enter any of the offices and rooms. There were two elevators, and at the far end of the building, for the more energetic, were the stairs.

  As she entered the gray-carpeted hall, a large hand-lettered sign caught her attention. The sign was posted directly above the call buttons for the elevators. In green and purple crayon, outlined with black Magic Marker for emphasis, was a new company directive: EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY, ALL EMPLOYEES WILL BE REQUIRED TO TAKE A COMBINATION OF GINKGO AND VIAGRA, SO YOU CAN REMEMBER WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE DOING.

  She began giggling. The nerds were in fine form today. By nature they rebelled against authority and structure; such signs were commonplace, at least until someone in management arrived and took them down. She imagined eyes all up and down the hallway were plastered to tiny cracks as the culprits enjoyed others’ reactions to their latest attack on corporate dignity.

  The door behind her opened, and Jaine turned to see who the next arrival was. She barely refrained from wrinkling her nose.

  Leah Street worked in human resources, and she could be counted on to not see the humor in anything. She was a tall woman whose ambition was to rise into management, though she didn’t seem to know how to go about doing so. She wore rather girlish clothes instead of the more businesslike suits that would have complemented her willowy build. She was an attractive woman, with feathery blond hair and good skin, but clueless when it came to fashion. Her best feature was her hands, which were slim and elegant, and which she always kept perfectly manicured.

  True to form, Leah gasped when she read the sign, and began turning red. “That’s disgraceful,” she snapped, reaching out to take it down.

  “If you touch it, y
our fingerprints will be on it,” Jaine said, totally deadpan.

  Leah froze, her hand only a fraction of an inch from the paper.

  “There’s no telling how many people have already seen it,” Jaine continued as she punched the up button. “Someone in management is bound to hear about it and investigate even if the sign isn’t here any longer. Unless you plan on eating it—which I wouldn’t, the germ count on that thing must be in the gazillions—how are you going to dispose of it without being seen?”

  Leah flashed Jaine a look of dislike. “You probably think this disgusting trash is funny.”

  “As a matter of fact, I do.”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised if you put it up yourself.”

  “Maybe you should tell on me,” Jaine suggested as the elevator doors opened and she stepped inside. “Try calling 1-800-WHO-CARES.”

  The elevator doors closed, leaving Leah standing outside them glaring at her. That was the most acrimonious exchange they’d ever had, though Leah wasn’t known for the ability to get along with others. How she had ever landed a job in HR was beyond Jaine. Most of the time, she simply felt sorry for the woman.

  Today wasn’t one of those times.

  Mondays were always the busiest day of the week in the payroll department, because that was when all the time cards for the week before were turned in. Hammerstead worked at supplying computer technology to General Motors, not at putting its own payroll system on computer. They still did it the old-fashioned way, with time cards that were punched by a clock. It was a lot of paperwork, but so far payroll had not been stopped by a software glitch or a hard-drive crash. Maybe that was why Hammerstead hadn’t upgraded: the payroll, like the mail, had to go through.

  By ten o’clock, she was ready for a break. Each floor had a snack room, with the usual assortment of vending machines, cheap cafeteria tables and metal chairs, a refrigerator, a coffeemaker, and a microwave oven. There were several women and one man grouped around a single table when Jaine entered, all of the women laughing their heads off and the guy looking indignant.

 
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