Tawny Lindholm sat in an unfamiliar neighborhood tavern in Billings, Montana, at a wooden table marred with carved initials. She traced the letter I, where condensation from her ginger ale had pooled.
I for interview—for the first job she’d applied for since high school, more than thirty years ago.
I for intimidating—the perfect word for Tillman Rosenbaum, the high-powered attorney who had kept her from going to prison then inexplicably offered her a job. He didn’t know yet about her dyslexia, that she struggled to read, and was a lousy typist. As soon as he found out, he’d withdraw the offer. The 450-mile trip from her home in Kalispell would be for nothing.
But she desperately needed a job. She’d arrived an hour early for the 2:30 interview, giving her stomach acid plenty of time to churn while waiting.
A woman with more wrinkles than a Shar-Pei entered the tavern and moved with a rolling, side-to-side gait toward the bar.
The bartender slid a pottery mug of coffee toward her. “Hey, Esther. Special today is pastrami on rye. Tillman’s favorite.”
Esther answered with the voice of a longtime smoker. “Make it two.”
Made sense that employees at the law office would pick up food from the tavern a block away. What kind of lucky chance just fell in Tawny’s lap?
Esther picked up the mug and looked around for a clean table. All were cluttered with dirty dishes after the lunch rush.
Tawny rose. “Excuse me.”
The woman glanced at her. “Yeah?”
“Do you know Tillman Rosenbaum?”
“Only for twenty-five long, hard, miserable years.” She didn’t smile but her blue eyes twinkled.
“My name is Tawny Lindholm. I have an interview—”
“I know who you are.” Esther moved to Tawny’s table and plopped down. “Join you while I wait for the order?” Up close, the woman looked anywhere between forty-five and eighty-five.
Tawny smiled. “Glad for the company.” Maybe she could glean a hint of how to approach the interview. “Do you work with him?”
“Office manager, bookkeeper, lion tamer.” Esther jerked a thumb toward the kitchen. “And sandwich go-fer.”
“Tillman is supposed to interview me for a job this afternoon,” Tawny said. “I have to admit, I’m nervous.”
Esther gulped coffee. “He faced down the feds on your behalf.”
“That’s why I’m nervous. He’s pretty forceful. Goes straight for the jugular.” Tawny pressed her lips together. “Can I ask you a question?”
“What’s he like to work for?”
Esther hooted. “Worst boss I ever had.”
Tawny’s muscles tensed. Why would he waste time interviewing her? Only one reason she could imagine and that was a deal-breaker. She should save herself the humiliation and just go home. Look for a job rounding up shopping carts or scooping ice cream.
Esther studied her for a moment then offered a wry smile. “He’s also the best boss I ever had.” Sincerity came through the gravel in her voice. “Listen, I was in your shoes many long years ago, broke, no husband. Yours died. Mine was in prison. Tillman hired me. Been with him ever since. But I won’t lie. He’s a sonofabitch.”
Tawny sipped ginger ale even though, so far, it hadn’t soothed her queasy stomach. “I don’t have any qualifications. For years I kept the books for my husband’s and my business. But that was a diesel engine repair shop, working with a bunch of mechanics and truck drivers. I don’t know anything about the law.”
Esther leaned back as she listened. Was she amused or annoyed?
Tawny pulled at her pencil skirt which had ridden up. The midnight-blue suit was the dressiest outfit she owned but uncomfortable as hell. “You know Tillman represented me pro bono. He put a lot of time on my case.” She made herself stop fidgeting. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ll always be grateful that he kept me out of prison. But, well, I don’t quite know how to ask this, except just to ask.”
“So ask already.” Esther’s words sounded like a rasp drawn across rusty metal.
“Since he didn’t charge me, is he going to expect…uh, benefits? Because, if he is, I’ll leave right now.”
Esther’s guffaw exploded in the nearly empty bar. After several seconds, it decelerated to a chuckle. She wiped her eyes. “Honey, he’ll make your life miserable but he keeps a Chinese Wall between himself and anyone who works for him.”
Tawny’s shoulders dropped. “That’s a relief.” She exhaled deeply but the question remained—why offer her a job?
Esther went on, “He’s impatient, demanding, a perfectionist, temper like a rabid pitbull.” She pulled at a silver chain around her leathery neck until a pendant appeared from under her blouse. “He gave this to me for my fiftieth birthday.” She held out a teardrop-shaped garnet surrounded by diamonds. “My birthstone.”
Tawny leaned close. “It’s beautiful.”
“That’s Tillman. One minute you want to kiss him, the next you want to kill him.”
From across the room, the bartender called, “Order up, Esther.”
She waved at him and rose. “Let’s go.”
Tawny hesitated. “My appointment isn’t for another forty-five minutes.”
Esther rolled her eyes. “I make his schedule and I say he’s free.”
Tawny hurried to pull her wallet from her tote-bag to pay for the ginger ale.
“Forget it. It’s on his tab.”
The law firm was in a two-story brick building from the early 1900s with high, embossed-tin ceilings. Art Nouveau antiques furnished the reception area. Urged by Esther’s nod, Tawny entered Tillman Rosenbaum’s private office on the ground floor, carrying the sack of sandwiches.
He was talking on his headset phone, facing a tall window that fronted on the street. His Brioni suit coat hung on a wooden hangar on a brass wall hook. When he moved, Tawny heard the crackle of starch in his dress shirt.
Months before, when she first met him, his staggering size had amazed her. Now it struck her again. She was five-ten, six feet in heels. Yet he towered higher by six or seven inches.
His back was to her, snarling at some poor soul on the other end of the phone. His deep baritone vibrated in the room like the bass at a rock concert. “Tell him the answer better be filed by five o’clock tonight. Otherwise, I’ll make sure the judge sanctions him.” He yanked the headset free from his tight black curls, dropped it on the desk, then noticed Tawny. No smile, no greeting, just the harsh stare from piercing, almost-black eyes.
She forced herself to maintain eye contact, even though she felt as if she were facing a double-barreled shotgun. She held the sack out like an offering to appease an angry god. “Pastrami on rye.”
He plucked it from her hand, sat, tore the paper open, and pushed it toward her. “Want one?”
At that moment, Tawny could no more eat than she could fly. “No, thank you.” She sat in the visitor’s chair.
He took a savage bite of the sandwich, chewed hard and quickly, then swallowed. “Twenty-five an hour. Full medical after ninety days. Matching four-oh-one K. Annual performance bonus. You won’t be at this office much. Mostly remote work. Lot of travel. I have clients all over Montana. If you use your own car, you’ll be reimbursed the max mileage the IRS allows, or rent a car, whichever you prefer. Some weeks, you won’t work at all, others will be twenty-hour days.” Another ferocious bite.
Tawny clasped her hands in her lap so the trembling wouldn’t show.
He swallowed the mouthful. “Well?”
“Are the terms satisfactory?”
“They’re very generous.”
She raised her hands in a stop motion. “Wait. Don’t you want run a background check? Give me a typing test? Or something…” Damn, why didn’t she shut up? She was making a mess of this interview.
“You want a test?” He put the sandwich down, rose, and leaned across the desk, looming over her, shirt crackling. “Police make a traffic stop based on a complaint about loud music coming from a vehicle. The driver turns the music down. Officers then observe a gun on the passenger seat, remove the driver from the vehicle, put him in handcuffs, and search the car. They find cocaine and arrest him. Are the drugs admissible as evidence?”
Tawny’s heart thudded. Blood heated her face. Was he playing a cruel joke? She stood but still had to look up at him. “I don’t know the answer.”
Tillman’s dark gaze grew more fearsome.
She clenched her teeth but refused to break eye contact. She was being honest. No shame in that. “If you want someone with that education, I’m obviously not the right person.”
“You are correct.”
Was this a spiteful game? Did he intend to embarrass her because she hadn’t been able to pay him? She squared her shoulders. “I’m grateful that you represented me.” Her skirt had ridden up again but she didn’t tug on it. Not in front of this jerk. “But was it fair to have me drive four-hundred-fifty miles when you weren’t going to hire me? If that’s the case, I think it’s only right to reimburse me for gas.”
His chair squeaked as he sat and leaned back, hands behind his head. “I ran the only background check I needed while I was working on your case. If I hadn’t already decided, I wouldn’t have had you drive to Billings. Esther’s cut a check to reimburse your mileage.”
Tawny’s mind jerked with the whiplash of realization. His offer was serious. She sank back into the chair. “But…I don’t understand. Why did you ask me that question?”
One eyebrow lifted. “You’re the one who wanted a test.”
She’d fallen into his trap but his jaws didn’t snap shut. She couldn’t repress her laugh of relief.
He grinned. “By the way, you passed because you’re so blatantly forthright.”
“It’s a failing I can’t help.” She finally allowed her hands to unclasp. “But you still don’t know if I have any skills. I’m a bad speller. I don’t type very well.”
“Now you’re trying to talk me out of hiring you?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. I just don’t know if I can do the work you expect.”
“Know what I expect?”
“I scare the shit out of people. It’s how I get things done. I need a counterbalance. You make people comfortable. You’re so goddamn transparent, they immediately know they can trust you. Your job is to find out the secrets my clients are too afraid to tell me.”
“That’s it? You don’t care if I don’t know anything about the law?”
“What you need to know, I’ll teach you.”
She straightened. “Well, if you’re sure. Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.”
A snort. “Let me know in a week if you’re still appreciative.”
Tillman was eating the second pastrami on rye, standing at the window, when Esther joined him. They watched the tall, slender woman walking down the block. The sun made her French braid glow like polished copper. She got into an aging Jeep Wrangler.
“Think she’ll make it through probation?” he asked.
“Every time you hire someone, we run an office pool about how long they’ll last.”
“Who usually wins?”
“Me. Made a couple hundred easy bucks.”
“What’s the shortest record?”
He gazed down at her. “You’ll outlast God, Esther.”
“That’s because I’m even more stubborn than you are.”
The Jeep drove away. Tillman continued to stare out the window for a few more seconds then sat at his desk, sandwich in one hand, as he typed with the other.
“Very pretty lady,” Esther said.
He studied the monitor. “I didn’t notice.”
“In a pig’s ass.”
He cracked a smile. “Never dip my pen in the company inkwell.” He took another bite of sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “What’s your bet in this office pool?”
“I think Tawny’s got staying power.”
He finished the pastrami, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and folded his arms. “You might be right.”
“Of course I’m right. I don’t make sucker bets.” Esther moved to the doorway then faced him. “When’s your divorce final?”
He shot her a warning glare. “I’d really hate to fire you, Esther.”
“You fire me, better start looking over your shoulder.”
The End (for now)
Follow Tawny’s next investigation in Stalking Midas.
A predator stealthier than a mountain lion is stalking the residents of a Montana golf community. Tawny suspects her boss’s estranged father is the victim of elder fraud. But cranky Moe Rosenbaum refuses to cooperate. While digging deep in his secrets, Tawny uncovers a cruel scam reaching deep into the pockets of his neighbors. Is Moe the victim or the villain?
The closer Tawny gets to the truth, the greater her danger because this predator has killed before and each time it gets easier.