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Authors: Mary Kay Andrews

The Fixer Upper

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The Fixer Upper
Mary Kay Andrews

Dedicated with love to my favorite aunt,
Alice Barchie, from her favorite niece

Contents

1

At the end of the very worst day in my…

2

“You need a plan.” Stephanie whipped a notebook out of…

3

I’d been out in the alley for only about twenty…

4

I’d been to Alex Hodder’s house in northwest Washington exactly…

5

As usual, the minute I stepped out of the Miami…

6

My father slid a yellowed black-and-white photograph across the desk…

7

My mother was just as thrilled with Mitch’s project as…

8

GUTHRIE, GEORGIA, THE LITTLE TOWN WITH BIG IDEAS. POP. 2,200.

9

At first glance, the interior of Birdsong wasn’t much of…

10

“So this is greater metropolitan Guthrie,” Becky said as we…

11

Becky was talking on her cell phone when I came…

12

“Ella Kate?” I peered around the dimly lit room to…

13

“My” bathroom had a high ceiling, a yacht-size bathtub, and…

14

I made a quick stop at the Piggly Wiggly for…

15

After I’d showered and was changing into some respectable clothes,…

16

When we got in the Prius to go home, Tee…

17

I awoke Wednesday to the slow, excruciating drip of rain,…

18

Thursday dawned so bright and sunny it almost made me…

19

This time my visitor was female. She was a fair-skinned…

20

“Dempsey?”

21

Out in the kitchen, Bobby was bent over the kitchen…

22

I hadn’t lied when I told Jimmy Maynard about my…

23

When I got out of the shower Sunday morning, I…

24

I picked at my food and sipped my drink, but…

25

My cell phone rang again, just as I was hitting…

26

“No,” I said flatly. “That’s a bug, right? You want…

27

I took a deep breath and looked around the kitchen.

28

“Are you all right?” I asked Tee.

29

It was pitch black when I woke up the next…

30

It was nearly noon when we left the animal clinic…

31

I was hungry. I hadn’t had any breakfast, or more…

32

Carter Berryhill was sitting at the desk in the reception…

33

Camerin Allgood and Jackson Harrell walked into Carter’s office unannounced.

34

When I saw the feds drive away in their government-issue…

35

Jimmy promised to put away my groceries while I ran…

36

“Awwww, sheee-uut,” Jimmy drawled. “I didn’t see he was with…

37

Tee unlocked his front door and pulled me inside. As…

38

While we’d been steaming up the windows in Tee’s shed,…

39

Fuelled by caffeine and angst, I finished sanding all the…

40

It was just getting dark when I heard the clatter…

41

I pressed my forehead against the cold window glass and shut…

42

“We’ve got to get her out of there,” I said,…

43

I walked slowly back to the chair where I’d been…

44

When I climbed into the front seat of the Mercedes,…

45

We spent the rest of the morning prying the old…

46

Trey drove the last truckload of papers and magazines and…

47

Jackson Harrell did a double take when I opened the…

48

The three of us were sitting around the kitchen table.

49

Ella Kate was dressed and sitting in a wheelchair when…

50

I sat at the kitchen table and stared down at…

51

According to my Piaget, exactly eleven minutes had passed when…

52

I crouched down in the shrubbery at the end of…

53

Camerin Allgood stood over the ironing board in my kitchen…

54

I didn’t have long to ponder the implications of a…

55

I spent Friday getting Lynda settled in.

56

I jogged down the block and slid into the backseat…

57

The house was quiet when I got home, although Lynda’s…

58

When the doorbell rang, I licked my lips nervously. Stop…

59

“Dempsey?” Carter tapped me on the shoulder and held out…

60

After a Sunday taken up with driving Ella Kate to…

61

As soon as my mother zoomed away from the curb…

62

I pulled the Catfish up outside the newspaper office, and…

63

“Hello, Alex,” I said pleasantly. “Nice to see you too.”

64

I looked over at the suitcase, which had slid onto…

65

Tee was dressed in a pair of blue jeans and…

A
t the end of the very worst day in my life up until that point, my roommates and I sat in a back booth at the Filibuster, a crappy bar on a crappy street on the outskirts of Georgetown, as the endless news footage of my public demise played itself out again and again on the television set mounted on the wall directly in front of us.

I’d commandeered the remote control for the television as soon as we’d scurried into the Filibuster’s darkened back room, but it seemed that every broadcast outlet in D.C. had decided to lead the day’s newscasts with the story they’d already dubbed Hoddergate.

Stephanie and Lindsay stared, goggle-eyed, at the television as I poured my first beer of the day.

“God, Dempsey,” Stephanie said. “You never told me your boss was an
old man
.”

I glanced up at the television. They were showing the footage of us leaving our office for a business meeting earlier that day. My boss, Alexander Hodder, strode forcefully down the sidewalk, the vents of his charcoal gray suit jacket flapping in the stiff March breeze, his head up, eyes directed straight ahead, resolutely ignoring the dozen or so reporters and cameramen who’d been lying in wait for us. Alex hadn’t even bothered to give them a “no comment” as we ran the gauntlet of reporters waving mikes in our faces and shouting questions about bribes and junkets. Meanwhile, I trailed a few yards behind, clomping clumsily along in my too-high black suede pumps, my steps constrained by the pencil skirt I’d stupidly chosen to wear to work that day.

“Alex isn’t old,” I snapped. “He’s just fifty. Anyway, nobody would ever guess he’s not in his early thirties.”

“Fifty!” shrieked Lindsay, putting down the beer pitcher in midpour. “Jesus, Dempsey. The way you always talk about him, I just assumed he
was
in his midthirties.”

“Fifty’s, like, prehistoric,” Stephanie agreed, gazing at the screen. “Although, yeah, I see what you mean about his looks. He’s got the whole chiseled chin, high cheekbones, broad shoulders thing going on. Is that his own hair? Or do you think it’s a weave or something?”

“Would you all stop?” I begged. “My life is going down the toilet—even as we speak—and all you guys can think about is how old Alex Hodder is.”

Stephanie, always the analytical one, sat back in the booth and tapped her fingertips on the scarred wooden tabletop. “You don’t think they’ll really indict him, do you? And anyway, it seems to me that his life is the one going down the toilet, not yours.”

“They’ve already indicted Congressman Licata,” I pointed out. “And now they’re after Alex. And me. All because of that damned trip we took Licata on in the Bahamas. You guys just heard what those reporters are saying—‘Unnamed sources claim that prominent Washington lobbyist Alexander Hodder is under investigation for bribing a congressman.’”

I nodded in the direction of the television, and the girls swiveled their heads to watch. Now CNN was showing grainy footage of Representative Licata, Alex, and me, all of us dressed in formal wear, for a thousand-dollar-a-plate charity benefit headed by Licata’s wife, Arlene. Our firm, Hodder and Associates, had bought a table for ten at the dinner, and all the young associates had been instructed to attend.

“Nice dress, Demps,” Lindsay murmured.

I blushed. “I would have asked to borrow it, but you were out of town.”

A gleeful-looking CNN reporter was declaring Hoddergate “the biggest influence-peddling scandal of the decade,” adding that “unnamed sources report that Hodder’s firm, which represents major petroleum interests, among other things, entertained Representative Licata with a golf outing to the exclusive Lyford Cay resort in the Bahamas, where Licata and Hodder were allegedly spotted romping with call girls on the resort’s nude beach.”

“Eeeww,” Stephanie said, shuddering and wrinkling her nose. “A nude beach? With those two old men? That Licata dude must weigh three hundred pounds. And he’s as old as my grandpa!”

“Forget the nude-beach part. What about the call girls!” Lindsay said, her eyes widening again. “Demps, did you actually hire prostitutes for a congressman?”

“No!” I protested. “Alex asked me to have the hotel arrange for a wakeboard instructor for Congressman Licata. Nobody ever said anything about prostitutes. I would never—”

“Isn’t Licata, like, sixty or something?” Lindsay persisted. “Why would an old geezer like that want wakeboard lessons?”

“I don’t know,” I said, moaning. “I’m an idiot. It never occurred to me that there was anything like that going on.”

“What about the condo in South Beach they say your boss bought Licata?” Stephanie asked. “That’s not true, right?”

“It wasn’t Alex’s money,” I said, slumping down in the booth. “Alex told me it was supposed to be some kind of loan thing. The condo belongs to one of the senior executives at Peninsula Petroleum and Licata was supposed to be making payments—”

“Ooh, look,” Lindsay interrupted, pointing at the television.

CNN was showing the footage of us fleeing from the reporters earlier that morning. “Sources within the Justice Department say they expect more indictments as the investigation continues,” the reporter said solemnly.

“Shit,” Stephanie said.

“Yeah,” Lindsay agreed, nodding her head sadly.

“Y
ou need a plan.” Stephanie whipped a notebook out of her omnipresent red leather satchel.

“For staying out of jail?” I asked, sipping my beer.

“A life plan,” Stephanie said. “You know, what’s the next step, that kind of thing. We analyze your career path up to now, examine your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes—”

“She likes older men,” Lindsay broke in. “Much older men.”

“Not funny,” I snapped.

“Sorry,” she said unconvincingly.

Stephanie began writing as she recited, “Hates mushrooms on her pizza, salt on her margaritas, cheap shoes, cheap wine—”

“Cheap old men,” Lindsay crowed.

“Give it a rest, will you?” Stephanie said. “Dempsey needs us.”

“I appreciate it,” I said. “Really. But I think you’re jumping the gun—”

My cell phone rang, and I glanced at the digital readout. “It’s Ruby, the office manager. Sorry, I better take this.”

I scrambled out of the booth. A crowd of men had gathered near the front door, their gazes all turned toward the television, where now, thankfully, the channel had been changed to a college basketball game. I walked rapidly toward the rear exit, pushed the heavy steel fire door open, and stepped into the alley, which smelled like stale beer, pee, and cigarettes.

“Ruby?”

“Where are you?” she snapped. “I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon.”

“I’m in Georgetown,” I said, feeling instantly guilty. “After what
happened…you know, with Alex, he canceled our meeting and said he was going to see his lawyer, and it was so late in the day, and I was sorta afraid the reporters might still be hanging around outside the office. I didn’t think there was any point in going back so late in the day. But if you need me—”

“I needed you at two. When FBI agents swarmed the office and cleaned out all our files and the hard drive to your computer and Alex’s.”

“What? My hard drive? Why? What are they looking for? Is this about Licata? I mean, Alex asked me to draft some notes on the new energy bill for him, but—”

“Goddammit,” she said quietly, in a very un-Ruby-like way. In fact, this whole conversation was very unlike Ruby Beaubien. In her early sixties, and a graduate of the Mississippi College for Women, Ruby was the personification of a sweet Southern belle. She rarely raised her voice or got flustered, and I’d never heard her use a curse word stronger than “daggum.”

“What a mess,” she went on. “Did Alex copy you on his e-mails to and from Licata, or from any of the guys over at Peninsula?”

“Sometimes,” I said, my heart sinking. “Not all the time. But yeah, he said I should be in the loop since—”

“I don’t suppose you dumped those e-mails once you’d read them?”

“No. It never occurred to me. I’m so sorry, Ruby.”

“Well, it can’t be helped now,” she said. “Alex had hoped you’d deleted everything.”

“You talked to him? What did he say? Is he all right?”

“He’s fine,” she said, cutting me off again. “Listen, Dempsey, you’ve got some vacation time coming to you. Alex wants you to go ahead and take it. Immediately.”

“Now? I can’t just go off on vacation in the middle of all this. I’ve got meetings on the hill almost every day this week and next. I’m writing a speech for David Welch to give at that breakfast in Houston, and we’ve got the pipeline people coming in at the end of the month—”

“Never mind all that,” Ruby said. I could hear phones ringing in the background, and the drone of a television. She was watching the news too, I realized, on the set in the break room. Or maybe in the conference
room where we had a bank of televisions so we could all keep up with breaking news in D.C.

“Alex was very specific,” Ruby said. “You’ll have four weeks of vacation pay coming. I’ve already cut your check.”

“But I don’t have four weeks of vacation time,” I said. “I don’t even have a week. Remember? I used four days to go to a wedding in Boston.”

“This is per Alex,” Ruby said. “Are you still living in Alexandria? The same address on LeConte?”

“Yeah, but—”

“I’ll have your things boxed up and sent out today. There’s no need for you to come back to the office at all.”

“Why would you box up my stuff?” My heart was racing. Things were going very wrong, very quickly. “Ruby—what is this? Am I being fired? You said Alex said it was vacation.”

“I can’t go into it right now,” Ruby said, her tone suddenly formal. “Mr. Hodder has decided to streamline the operation at Hodder and Associates, to concentrate on his core interests. If you need the name of an outplacement consultant, I can get that for you. It’ll be best not to call here, though. You can reach me at my Hotmail address.”

“Ruby,” I cried pitifully. “You’re firing me? What is this? Does Alex know about this? Where is he?”

“Mr. Hodder is in meetings with his attorneys,” she said. “I have to go now, Dempsey. Good luck.”

The phone went dead. I redialed Ruby’s number, but my call went immediately to voice mail.

My legs suddenly felt like overcooked spaghetti. I sank down on a stack of empty wooden wine crates. I flipped my phone open again and scrolled down my list of contacts until I came to Alex’s name. I punched the connect button. It rang once, and then I was hearing Alex’s voice, with that unmistakable deep, refined Virginia accent.

“This is Alexander Hodder of Hodder and Associates. If you’re getting this message, I’m either on another line or out meetin’ and greetin’. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you just as soon as I possibly can. Oh? And in the meantime? Have yourself a great day.”

“Alex?” I was biting back the tears. “It’s Dempsey. Ruby just called. And she said you said…well, it sounds like I’ve been fired. I don’t understand. Call me please, Alex. So we can get this straightened out. And I want to know what’s going on with you. Okay? So call me the minute you get this—”

The machine beeped to let me know I’d run out of time. I was starting to call back when I heard the rusty scrape of the fire door opening. Lindsay’s head popped out.

“Demps? Are you all right? We’re getting worried about you. Thought maybe you were kidnapped by aliens.”

I stood up slowly. “Not kidnapped. Just fired.”

Lindsay’s deep blue eyes widened. “For real? He fired you? Just like that?”

I nodded. “At first Ruby said I should just take vacation time. Four weeks. I don’t get that much vacation. I only have, like, three days left for the whole year. Then she said they were shipping all the stuff in my office back to the apartment. The next thing I knew, she was saying good-bye and good luck.”

“For real?” She put her arm around my shoulders, and I realized I was coatless and shivering in the cold, the fingertips clutching my cell phone tinged with blue. “Is Alex okay with this?” she asked.

“Dunno. She said it was all on his instructions. I left a message on his cell phone asking him to call me right away.”

I felt a tear slide down my cheek.

“Come on back inside,” she said, moving me toward the door. “We’ll get this all worked out. Don’t worry. There’s nothing the three of us and a pitcher of margaritas can’t solve.”

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