The song “Easy like Sunday Morning” by Lionel Richie played on Beth’s cell phone. She listened to the music through the earphones while eating her ham and cheese sandwich.
She enjoyed the view of Diamond Lake and pondered the name. The sun’s rays glistened on the water like millions of dazzling diamonds. She nodded Yep, it fits.
A gust of wind brought with it the sweet aroma of jasmine. Beth took in a deep breath and thought there can’t be a better place than this right now.
Flipping her long blonde hair over the bench, Beth leaned her head back closing her eyes. She heard birds chirping, children laughing, and rustling of leaves. Embracing the euphoric moment, she became mesmerized by the variety of sounds. It amazed her how the sense of hearing seemed amplified when one took away sight.
What wasn't heard was hidden behind the bushes. Not far from where Beth’s erratic thoughts had her captivated, the snapping of a camera slipped by unnoticed. Unheard were the footsteps of a man in the shadows as he disappeared, satisfied with his work.
Beth pushed back a feeling of dread and glanced at her watch. She realized the time had gotten away from her. Jumping up like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, she brushed the crumbs off her slacks. With the other hand, she stuffed the rest of the sandwich in her mouth. She gathered her things and picked up her pace while exiting the park.
Nearing the hill bordering the park, she came to a steep, concrete staircase and sprinted up. When reaching the top, the energy switched from positive to negative. Instead of happy people in a serene setting, frustrated, impatient people rushed everywhere.
The scene changed from park benches and swans to skyscrapers and traffic lights.
The noise of jackhammers and honking replaced the sound of birds chirping and squeals of laughter.
The stink of smog took over the aroma of jasmine.
In the midst of the crowd, Beth worked her way to the traffic light. Squeezing through the mass to the edge of the street, a red sports car zoomed by. The deafening racket caused her to stumble back into the mob of pedestrians. The light turned green, but now she couldn’t move, she just stood shaking like a leaf.
Once her nerves calmed, Beth hustled across the street and dodged her way down the busy sidewalk to the Willis Mortgage Company. Upon entering her workplace, she turned slamming the door as if something was chasing her.
A co-worker rushed up to her. Silvia, a spunky redhead, resembled a wind-up toy that never stopped. The other co-workers didn’t like her bossy manner, but as a friend, she had your back. One of the company’s underwriters, she and Beth worked closely together. During work, they acted professional, but after hours they morphed into the nonsensical ones. Friday nights they spent dancing and partying at the local club - although, not much lately.
“Beth Nielson, where’ve you been? Get in here.” Silvia grabbed her arm. “There’s been another murder.” She pulled Beth into the large break room where their co-workers stood in front of the television.
Channel elevens news announcer reported on the Minneapolis serial killer. “In the last eleven months, six women’s lives ended in their homes. Each victim had been stabbed twice in the chest and their faces slashed beyond recognition.”
He continued with their description, “All identical with long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slim frame of five foot, six.”
“Beth,” Tony said, “That’s you in a nutshell.”
Beth loved Tony like a brother. They’d worked together four years, but he had a lot of drama. The handsome twenty-six-year-old wore a neatly trimmed goatee, and with his mussed up dishwater-blonde hair, he could turn a girl’s head.
However, he was gay and that made him as much fun as Beth’s female counterparts, if not more. Tony had been the class clown throughout his years in school and claimed, “Laughter’s the mask of masculinity.”
“Tony, that description fits a lot of women.” Beth rolled her eyes as she walked out of the room. All I need now is a serial killer after me. I already have an ex-boyfriend stalking me.
Beth dragged her feet to her piled-high desk and stared at it. Rather than digging in, she turned on her heel and headed for the bathroom where she locked everyone out. Sauntering to the padded bench across from the vanity, she plopped down and bent over. Putting her head in her hands, she thought, my life is the complete opposite of ‘Easy like Sunday Morning.’
Silvia knocked on the door. “Can I come in?”
“Is there nowhere to hide?” Beth mumbled. She stood, shuffled to the door and swung it open.
Silvia, along with Tony, slipped in.
Beth returned to the bench and plunked down.
Silvia and Tony followed and settled in on each side of her. There wasn’t room for all of them, but they squeezed in anyway. It actually made Beth giggle a little.
Inseparable, the three were the center of the party wherever they went - but not so much anymore.
Silvia tapped Beth’s hand. “We’re worried about you keeping to yourself all the time. Talk to us.”
Tony, being facetious, said, “You don’t even go to the club with us anymore. I can’t be the center of attention all the time.”
“Oh, p-l-eez.” Silvia rolled her eyes.
Tony leaned over and pointed at Beth saying, Girlfriend, you need a night out. A bunch of us are going to the club tonight. Come with us. What'd you say?”
Beth’s lips quivered as she answered, “Not this evening Tony.” Pausing long enough to wipe a single tear away, she cried, “I hate my life. I’m twenty-five years old, and I’ve got no control of my destiny. I want kids, but you have to meet a decent guy first, right?”
Silvia placed her hand over Beth’s. “I think there’s more to your depression. Let’s see if we can figure it out. Stop me if I’m wrong. A psychotic ex-boyfriend’s stalking you. You work for one of the busiest mortgage brokers in the area with the meanest boss. Worse, you’re her assistant and the one she kicks around the most. Does that about cover it?”
Beth crossed her legs. Placing an elbow on her knee, she rested her chin in her palm and let out a sigh, “You forgot to mention I’m homeless. I should never have given up my apartment to move in with that knucklehead.”
Silvia threw her hands up in the air. “I told you to stay with me until you get your place.”
“You have a studio, Silvia. Thanks anyway, but the motel’s temporary. Next week my apartment will be ready. Besides, it’s not just that. It’s everything. My job used to be great, but with all the changes, it sucks.”
Tony crossed one leg over the other. Wiggling his foot he stated, “Well, we no longer have Mr. Willis and he was what held this place together. He never put us beneath his feet like what’s going on now. The place had real camaraderie back then. Bummer you had to be the one to find him, Beth.”
Six months ago, Beth discovered their former administrator passed out in his office chair. He never regained consciousness. He died at the hospital that night from a massive heart attack. At sixty-four, he’d looked forward to retiring in a year. His death devastated the entire staff. The place hadn’t been the same since the owners brought in the new administrator. Mrs. Steinhart, a stout fifty-six-year-old towering woman, filled Mr. Willis’ position. Since then, there has been nothing but stress and hurry, hurry, hurry.
Tony smirked as he commented, “I think Steinhart is miserable because she’s in the wrong business. She'd be great as a prison warden.”
Silvia chortled, “Oh my God, Tony, it’s funny you say that. Last night, I watched the TV series, Wentworth. I thought Ferguson, the warden of the prison, looked and acted like Steinhart. The prisoners call her The Freak. What a hoot.”
Another knock on the door, it was Cheryl this time. This attractive brunette, shorter in stature than the rest, was a little on the chunky side. Regardless, she always looked well put together with her fashionable attire. She was also the calm one of the group with her soft-spoken demeanor and was the one to go to when sharing confidences.
Cheryl talked through the closed door, “Beth, Mrs. Steinhart’s on her way. She wants to see you in her office the minute she arrives.”
Beth, Silvia, and Tony all stood at the same time and frowned at each other.
“Great,” Silvia rolled her eyes. “Back to prison, The Freak's coming.”
Beth gathered a deep breath, opened the door and came out with Silvia and Tony following.
Cheryl shot a sly look at the lone male, “Really, Tony? I thought this was the woman’s bathroom?”
Tony strutted past her, raised his brow and shook his finger saying, “And don’t you forget it, girlfriend.”
Cheryl gave him a high five. “It’s a good thing everybody loves you, Tony. Now get back to work.”
Cheryl took Beth aside. “Listen, that rumor going around,” she paused, pursed her lips and continued, “it’s not a rumor, Beth.”
“The company plans to stop home mortgages. They’re going to focus on large business loans.” Cheryl placed her hand on Beth’s arm. “There will be changes around here, more than we thought.”
“Will the company send me for training?”
“That’s what I need to tell you. Mrs. Steinhart’s bringing her assistant from her last job. Claims this woman is qualified and won’t need any training.”
“What will happen to my job? She won’t need two assistants.”
“I’m sorry, but she plans on moving you to one of their offices in Illinois. You’ll educate the new employees on home mortgages. She told them you’d be perfect and wouldn’t require training. Sound familiar? Guess she uses the same line every time.”
“But I don’t want to move to Illinois. What if I say no?”
“She’ll offer you compensation pay and unemployment and will justify it by saying your position no longer exists.”
“But my brother Russ lives here. He’s the only family I have. What can I do? Now’s not a good time to make big changes.”
“I wanted to give you a heads up. With Mr. Willis gone, the owners are doing what they’ve always wanted to do. Heck, we may all wind up leaving.”
Tony came from around the corner and pointed toward the entrance door. “Ferguson alert.”
Beth wanted to run and hide. Before she could put off the inevitable, Steinhart spotted her and motioned for her to come. So hanging her head, like a whipped puppy, Beth obeyed.
Steinhart got settled into her office and turned to Beth. “Sit down. We’ve something important to discuss.”
Rumors floated around the office like feathers from a down pillow. Nobody knew which were real and which ones were false, except sometimes, Lori, the companies' office manager. Lori was Beth’s age and another one of the weekend partiers. But she took her job seriously and if anybody knew anything about the company, she did.
Tony, in his spare time, hung out in her office. His co-workers would send him in there to get the truth, or at the least, the latest gossip. The copy machine sat in the corner so Tony often brought in unnecessary paperwork to make it appear he had a legitimate reason for being in there.
Lori sat at her desk going through a stack of documents when Tony came in. Setting the papers on the copy machine, he plopped himself onto the overstuffed chair meant for clients. “Lori, I’m worried about Beth. Her plate’s piled so high, and now her asshole ex is giving her a hard time.”
“Yeah, I know. Beth told me he’s stalking her. Creepy.” Lori continued working.
“You got that right. Did she tell you she filed a restraining order against him?”
“Yes, she did. I never trusted that guy. Ever since I met him, creepy Gary went overboard to impress everyone. He’s always buying stuff like a boat or something big. Then we have to listen to him brag about it. It got sickening. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him.”
“That won’t be happening anytime soon. Have you heard the latest? He got busted for pedophilia.”
Lori stopped working and stared at Tony. She had not heard this. “Did he get arrested?”
“Not by a cop. Gary got busted by a guy pretending to be a fifteen-year-old girl on a chat line. Anybody can go to the website and read the conversation between him and who he thought was a teenager.”
“What?” Lori got up and shut the door. She swung around and asked, “Are you sure about this Tony?”
No sooner had Lori closed the door when Cheryl opened it a crack. “Hello? Is this door closed for a reason?”
Lori pulled Cheryl into the office, closed the door and pointed to her. “Does she know?”
“I’m the office manager, the one everybody tells everything to. So why is it I haven’t heard this? Poor Beth.” Lori’s hand went to her forehead as she walked around in small circles.
“Listen, guys,” Cheryl said, trying to keep them calm. “Things are going to hit the fan around here. Beth needs all the support we can give her so let’s keep this under our hats, okay?” She glanced at her watch. Beth had been in Steinhart’s office for fifteen minutes and Cheryl was getting more nervous with every passing minute.
Tony, jumping to his feet, asked, “What do you mean craps going to hit the fan? What are you talking about?”
Cheryl answered, “Change comes with new bosses. Not always the kind we want.”
The door opened and Beth came in. Cheryl’s eyes widened as she gave Beth a “What happened?” look.
Beth made her way to where Tony had been sitting and eased into the chair. Moments passed before she said anything.
Tony and Lori gave Cheryl a “What's going on?” look.
Beth finally spoke, “I guess Mrs. Steinhart’s leaving Monday to go out of town for a week. She wanted to go over everything I need to do while she’s gone.”
Cheryl gave a sigh of relief, pulled out a chair and plopped down. She had been expecting, a - not so good scene.
Beth leaned over to Cheryl and said in a low voice, “Guess I dodged a bullet for another week.”
Silvia poked her head in the door and warned, “Steinhart’s on her way, so break it up in here.”
Tony gathered up his papers and reminded Beth, “Honey, don’t forget, next Friday we’re having your twenty-sixth birthday party. No park that day, okay? Now I’m getting the hell out of dodge before the warden arrives. I advise you all to do the same.”
Beth and Cheryl followed suit.
At a safe distance, Cheryl pulled Beth aside. “Let’s meet after work tonight for a drink. You can vent, cry on my shoulders if you want.”
“I can't, Cheryl. I have all my stuff in the car. I’m going straight to Russ’.”
“Come on Beth, its Friday! Your brother only lives an hour away. You’ve gone to his place every weekend for a month. I miss you.”
“Russ needs me and I need him during these weird times. Give me a little more time to work things out. I don’t think I’d be much fun for anybody tonight. How about we plan to go out next Friday for my birthday?”
Beth put two fingers up. “Scouts honor.”