A Bad Day for Scandal
Unlike most of Stella's clients, who tended to sob their way through extensive if meandering and not always sense-making litanies of their trials and woes, Priss didn't seem inclined to spare any extra words.
"The situation is in your area of expertise," she said in a fakey clipped smarty-pants voice that Stella figured she must have picked up by watching that hoochie-looking brunette gal on CNBC, the one who was always talking about business as though she was describing how to jam a stick up your butt.
"I don't guess I know what you're talking about," Stella said, deciding she didn't like Priss any more now than when the gal had taken off for the big city a decade and a half ago at the age of eighteen. News of Priss's successes—college, then business school, then some fancy job in Kansas City where she evidently made bucketloads of money—though she never saw fit to send any to her poor sickly mother, who died in the same housecoat she'd been wearing to the market for years—had filtered back to Prosper from time to time. It was generally met with a fair bit of grumbling, either because folks were jealous or just plain irritated, since at one time or another Priss had managed to alienate nearly every man, woman, and child in town with her priggish, superior ways. "My business is selling sewing machines, if you remember."
"Oh. Yes. Your husband's shop. God rest his soul. So you've managed to keep it profitable?" Priss didn't bother to mask her skepticism.
"It's done very well, actually," Stella lied, seething. In truth, Hardesty Sewing Machine Sales & Repair—which she was now running with the help of her assistant, Chrissy Shaw, allowing her to concentrate more on her sideline business—barely covered its costs and eked out enough extra to keep her in generic laundry detergent and Maybelline mascara and an occasional dinner out at Red Lobster.
"Lovely. So delighted to hear it. I'm looking forward to hearing more about you, Stella, but this is a matter of some urgency so I wonder if we could continue this conversation here at the farm—I'm staying with Liman."
Stella figured Priss was looking forward to hearing about her about as much as she was looking forward to her next mammogram—but her distaste was overshadowed by surprise that Priss was staying with her brother: Priss hadn't deigned to stay in the ramshackle family home in years.
"Look here, Priss, I've got guests. We're in the middle of dessert. I'm using china, for heaven's sake."
That last bit was stretching it—Stella didn't own any actual china—but she had taken pains to go through the dishes and pick out the ones on which the fruit-bowl design was least worn.
"Of course. And you know that I am loath to interrupt such a special gathering." Priss sighed, even over the phone lines managing to communicate a certain lack of sincerity. "In fact, I'm willing to double your usual rate."
That stopped Stella cold.
Money troubles were a storm cloud that followed her everywhere she went. A small inheritance had helped her pay off her house and car before she sent her husband Ollie to an early grave. The wives and girlfriends who started coming to her for help with their own abusive men paid Stella for her services—most of them. But Stella didn't exactly make big dollars. It was difficult to squeeze gobs of cash out of shell-shocked, bruised, worn-down women who often found themselves without any source of income once their no-good men had their attitudes forcibly adjusted by Stella.
And while nobody, neither the newly-liberated women nor Stella herself, figured they were any worse for the trade, it generally took a certain amount of getting-back-on-their-feet time before her grateful clients could start up a payment plan.
Adding to Stella's tenuous financial position was a recent hospital stay, courtesy of a case gone dramatically wrong to the tune of a couple of bullets, and a long recuperation during which she was unable to work. Her water heater had developed a difficult personality, likely as not to blast her with a surprise jolt of cold water mid-shower, and the garage door hadn't worked right since a spate of tornadoes blasted through town last October. Her roof was about to go, damaged by those same tornadoes. She'd recently acquired a dog, and the pretty white fence that kept Roxy from escaping the back yard had set her back more than she'd planned.
The bottom line was that Stella hadn't had an extra cent for Christmas gifts, much less fixing everything that was broken. An infusion of cash would be most welcome.
Still, a bitch was a bitch, and Saturday night was Saturday night, and Goat Jones in the chair next to her, rubbing his calf against hers in a manner that suggested it wasn't entirely accidental, and might in fact lead to more rubbing and friction a little later, was an ace in the hole that had to be worth something.
"I doubt you could afford me, Priss," Stella said.
"It's 'Priscilla' now. Nobody calls me Priss any more—"
"Everybody here does," Stella corrected her, "You're just not around to hear us."
"—and I can probably afford a lot more than you think. How does a deposit of, say, five thousand dollars sound to you?"
Stella blinked. She took the phone away from her ear, stared at it, and considered. Five thousand dollars sounded like a hell of a lot of scratch. That might cover the water heater and the garage door and a little fun money to boot. She swallowed hard, put the phone back to her ear, and opened her mouth.
Then she thought of Goat, who had come to dinner in a soft gray sweater that felt like a little baby lamb. Thought about how that sweater might feel against her skin as she tugged it off him in a moment of crazy monkey-love passion.
Thought about driving out in the dark and cold to the old Porter place to get bossed around some more.
"It sounds like you're not keeping up with inflation," she said coldly. "I'll need ten thousand up front and that buys you a conversation, no promises."
There was a silence on the other line, and then Priss laughed. "My, my, my, Stella Hardesty. So it's true what they say, you've grown yourself a backbone."