Sneak Peek: Picture Imperfect, Ch. 1

Who would have thought someone at this gathering would be dead in less than twenty-four hours? But that’s just what happened.

My friend Nancy had told me these town hall meetings could quickly erupt into something resembling an Ultimate Fighting match, but I assumed she was exaggerating. Since moving back to Cascada, I had come to see the small town in a whole new light. It was no longer just the place I’d spent my youth. At thirty-five, I realized it was a like any other small town with its own commerce, politics, and plenty of personal agendas. Many of those would end up on display tonight.

The turnout was huge. We found aisle seats in the middle of the theater. That’s right. For big meetings like this one for the Winter Arts Fair, meetings were held in the town’s one small movie theater. It was the old-fashioned kind with a stage, red velvet curtains, and an organ sitting off to the side to accompany the silent film showings.

As more and more people filed in, I got a craving for popcorn. It was probably the scent of butter and furniture polish that hung in the air and was infused in the upholstered seats.

I whispered to Nancy, “The meeting hasn’t even started and people are already arguing.”

She laughed as she stared at her cell phone. “I told you there’d be fireworks.”

Off in the corner, Mayor Hadwell did his best to calm down a man I didn’t recognize. Their voices reverberated through the small auditorium like Big Ben in London.

“How dare you replace me!” The man threw back his head and stuck out his chin. “I’ve been in charge of the pie auction for ten years straight!”

Harvey Hadwell, mayor for the past three years, was married to a retired high school English teacher and spent most of his time gardening. Clutching his gavel, he remained firm. “Ten years was a good run. Time to shake things up a little. Besides, after what happened last year, we just have to replace you.”

“But that wasn’t my fault. I—I just tripped.”

“You fell onto a table of pies and smashed all ten of them to pieces.”

The man glared back. “How was I to know those teenaged hooligans spiked the apple cider?”

“Look, the only way I was able to get people to even enter the competition this year was to promise them we’d have a new chairman. You know how much the town needs the money from this auction. Besides, I’ve assigned you a new position.”

The man raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“You’re going to be head of security over the refreshment area. That way we can be certain there’s no funny business again.”

I had heard that Mayor Hadwell was a peacemaker, and now I’d seen him in action.

The disgruntled ex-chairman skulked away, seemingly satisfied.

I frowned at Nancy. “What are you doing on your phone? You’re supposed to be giving me the lowdown on all these people.”

“Sorry, but I’ve got a prospective buyer with a million questions.”

Nancy owned the biggest real estate business in town, which kept her super busy but also meant she knew almost everyone. As a new business owner myself, it was important to have connections. I studied the pamphlet with all the fair’s events listed.

“At least tell me who the judge is for the photography competition,” I said. “I’ve entered one of my pictures.”

“Artie Becker,” she answered without looking up. She brushed her long auburn locks back over her shoulder.

Nancy was arguably the most beautiful girl in town. If only she could find a guy who interested her as much as her business. She was one of those girls who went on a lot of first dates. Although she was a sweetheart, she often camouflaged it with a sharp tongue. That’s what drew us together as friends—our mutual dislike of people who annoy us.

“Artie Becker.” I mulled over the name. “Isn’t he the guy who takes pictures of houses for you?”

She nodded. “He’s not very good, and he’s unreliable. You know, the whole package.”

Ugh. From what I’d seen of his work, he was a no-talent hack. I could give a camera to my cat and she could take better pictures. Before I moved back a few months ago, he was the only professional photographer in town, if you could call his work “professional.” Technically, people paid him to take pictures, so I guess that qualified him as a pro.

Still, I couldn’t imagine he was the best choice to be judge of the photo contest. I hadn’t entered any of my fine arts photography in a competition since college, and I was a little nervous. The fair was one of the two biggest events in Cascada and featured numerous arts and crafts competitions as well as booths for local vendors to sell their wares. People from all over the area would participate.

The theatre continued to fill up and the number of people I didn’t recognize grew. I had made it a point to try to make friends with as many of my fellow Cascadians as possible. After all, they were potential clients for my new photography business, The Foto Factory. Maybe there would be mingling after the meeting.

To be honest, I’d rather have been home snuggled by the fire with Jake binge-watching Netflix. But he had a new cyber case to investigate and would be glued to his computer for days. Actually, I had found it a little awkward dating Nancy’s brother, Jake. Normally, you tell your best friend all the juicy bits when you’re in a new relationship. But Nancy had made it clear I was to keep all intimate details about her big brother to myself. Who could blame her.

Nancy finally looked up from her phone. “By the way, are you entering a pie in the silent auction?”

The question surprised me. “I can’t believe that’s still a thing. I remember my mom used to do that.”

“Of course it’s a thing. That’s how the town maintains its reputation as the pie capital of New Mexico.”

My eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you’re actually baking a pie for the auction. What about our no-baking pledge?”

“Ha. We don’t have a no-baking pledge.” Her face lit up.  “Last year I came in eleventh place. That Gayle Davidson won again with her strawberry rum recipe. I still can’t figure out what she puts in her crust.”

“Wait. I thought it was an auction, not a contest.”

She leaned in closer. “It’s not a contest…officially. But the pie with the highest bid is the self-proclaimed winner and gets bragging rights. Karol puts it on her menu at the café and we do it all over again at the fall festival.”

This was a side of Nancy I had never seen. I knew she was a go-getter when it came to running her business, but I had no idea she was a competitive pastry nut.

She raised her head high. “I’ve been perfecting my recipe for months. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t enter this time, but you’ll be expected to in the future.”

What was this, Stepford Place? Would the pie police come after me? Or maybe the confectionary cops?

I tried not to laugh. “So what is this magic pie you’re making?”

Her mouth dropped open as though I’d just punched her in the gut. “I can’t tell you that!”

“Why not? It’s not a matter of national security or anything.”

The look on her face said it all.

I spoke slowly as I called her out. “You don’t trust me, do you? You think I’ll tell someone or try to make it myself!”

“It’s not that…” Nancy’s words came out as stammering gibberish.

I couldn’t help but laugh then. “Don’t worry. We’re cool. At least I know where I stand now.”

Before she could protest, another commotion arose behind us. I turned around to see a slender young woman standing in the aisle, hands on her hips. Everything about her was over the top, from her fiery red hair, to her severe eyebrows, to her stiletto heels. She towered over the man she berated in front of her.

“Mr. Becker, you said you’d have that video to me a week ago! My wedding was last month. I’ll probably be divorced before I get to watch myself walk down the aisle.” Her face competed with her hair for the brightest shade of red.

The man she lorded over was middle aged and wore bright blue cowboy boots under his beige leisure suit. His face was camouflaged by a large pair of glasses that were supposed to adjust from night to day but looked perpetually stuck in between.

“Look, lady,” he said, “don’t get your panties in a wad. I’ve had a lot going on. You’re not my only client, you know.” He glanced at the guy crouched behind her. “I’ll have it to you by the end of the week.”

“End of the week? That’s what you said last week.” She turned to the man slouching beside her, presumably her husband. “We’ll sue you if we have to, right, honey?”

He kept his head low and avoided eye contact. “He said he’d have it by the end of the week. Let’s give him a chance.”

“What?” Red held up her claws as though she would scratch his eyes out. “You spineless wimp! Why did I even marry you if you won’t stand up for me?” She looked around at the stares from the crowd and lowered her voice. “I expect that video tomorrow, or else.” She stormed off to her seat in the front row.

Her poor husband shrugged his shoulders and followed, leaving the other man fuming, his fists balled as though he wanted to go after them.

Nancy looked up from her phone. “That’s Artie Becker, by the way.” She motioned for him to come over.

He first glared at the young couple but begrudgingly walked up to where we were sitting.

“You haven’t forgotten about the Boswell job tomorrow morning, have you?” Nancy asked. “They’re all over me to get their house on the market asap.”

“I’ll be there.” He looked at me suspiciously. “Aren’t you that new photographer who opened a studio in the old skating rink?”

“That’s me.” I stuck out my hand. “Wendy Fairmont.”

He hesitated before finally giving it a shake. “Hope you have a back-up plan. I’ve got a loyal following in this town.”

I shot a glance at the redhead and her husband. “I can see that.”

Before he could offer an equally snotty comeback, Mayor Hadwell banged his gavel on the podium to start the meeting. Artie took a seat across the aisle.

“As you know, this is the final meeting before this weekend’s fair. We have a lot of local and out-of-town participants coming, and I want to make sure we are ready. Lois, what about set-up? Do you have enough tables and extension cords?”

Lois Green stood. “That’s all taken care of, but because of the number of vendors, we are going to need an extra day to get everything ready this year. I want to start setting up on Thursday instead of Friday.”

“I object!” A man near the front of the theatre leaped up.

“Coach Barnes, this isn’t a courtroom,” the mayor said. “What’s the problem?”

Calvin Barnes had been named the head coach at Cascada High School back when I was a student there. And in those nearly twenty years since, he had struggled to put together winning teams. The New Mexico Sports Association had named him the best high school coach without a playoff win. It was probably meant to be a slam, but he proudly included it in his credentials every chance he got. Calvin looked like he could step back onto the field at a moment’s notice and go toe-to-toe with any NFL linebacker. He was good looking, if you were into older muscle men who likely opened beer bottles with their teeth.

He cleared his throat and adjusted his CHS ball cap. “I had to give up the gymnasium last week for the science fair and two weeks before that for the Sadie Hawkins dance. How am I supposed to get my boys ready for the district basketball tournament if everyone and his brother keeps taking over the gym?”

“Ah, pipe down, Cal. It’s not like they ever win anyway.”

All eyes turned to a mustached man in aviator glasses sitting next to Artie. Under his brown plaid jacket, he wore a polyester shirt with a wide collar and a loud, orange floral print. Both hands were adorned with gold rings and he had a bad comb-over, which is actually kind of redundant.

Calvin puffed out his chest. “I’ll have you know, Clyde, I’ve been called the best loser in the state.”

As laughter snaked through the crowd, I turned to Nancy. “Who is that guy and does he know the seventies are over?”

Nancy chuckled. “That’s Clyde Hornsby. He used to own the pawn shop. Now he just hangs out at Karol’s Kafé and gambles at the casino.”

The coach’s tanned face turned purple. “That’s not what I mean. I meant—”

Mayor Hadwell intervened. “We know what you mean, Coach Barnes, and we appreciate your cooperation.  Lois, how about waiting until school is out Thursday to get started? I bet the coach would volunteer some of his athletes to help set up those tables. Right, Coach?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” He plopped down in his seat causing the metal supports squealed in protest.

“Good. Now, as you may know, Sherry Grady has graciously agreed to take over as chairman of the pie auction.”

An audible gasp filled the room. Nancy elbowed me in the ribs. “That’s not fair!” she whispered. “She shouldn’t be allowed to be chairman and enter her own pie. That’s why a man should be in charge.”

I just nodded, pretending to care and pretending not to notice how sexist that statement sounded. You see, Sherry was my high school nemesis. I’m sure we all had one. Only problem was that mine still held a deep-seated resentment toward me. Luckily, our paths rarely crossed, except when we worked out at the gym.

Sherry took the stage. Her skinny jeans disappeared into tall snakeskin boots. “Ladies, I’m doing things a little differently this year. After last year’s mix-up with some of the auction forms—that was even before the catastrophe with the table getting knocked over—I am requiring all pies be delivered to the school cafeteria no later than four o’clock Friday afternoon. That will give me an hour to get things ready before the auction begins at five. I, and I alone, will secure the auction forms to the tables in the cafeteria to ensure no one tampers with them again. As the sheriff’s wife, I can assure you there will be strict supervision of the event this year. If you have any questions, see me after the meeting.” She pranced off the stage.

The mayor returned. “Now we are going to hear a report on the financial status of the event.” He shielded his eyes as though he were under a spotlight and searched the crowd. “Has anyone seen Margo?”

A petite blond came forward from the back of the room. “Mother is down with a head cold,” she said in a pixie-like voice that matched her appearance. “She asked me to give you this report.” She handed a manila folder to the mayor who thanked her and began reading aloud from the papers.

Nancy let out another gasp and grabbed my hand. Several people turned to see what was wrong.

“What is it?” I asked, thinking she was having some sort of attack.

She smiled to let others know she wasn’t having a medical crisis. Finally, when they’d turned their attention back to the mayor, she leaned over to me and whispered. “That’s Jake’s ex-girlfriend. I had no idea she was back in town. I wonder if Jake knows.”


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