It was a day job. That's how it started—just a day job. Some old model with cash to burn and a purely academic interest in profit would set him up behind a desk and throw money down the drain to her heart's content, leaving him right where he'd always wanted to be.
It was a day job—somewhere cushy to park his sorry ass during the daylight hours. His task was simple: lose enough money to ease some chick's taxes through the system. No sweat. Piece of cake. All he needed was a company car for evening excursions on the town, a secretary loony enough to ensure serious clients never considered returning, and a comfy chair perfectly suited for recovering from the previous night's binging. He'd finally done it. After years of blindly feeling his way through life and finding cracked open windows down dark alleys where he'd expected to find dead ends, he'd finally stumbled onto easy street.
And it suited him just fine.
And then, like a terribly clichéd scene from some old black and white movie, she'd walked into his office: Ms. Madelyn Hayes. And the abstract sugar-mamma fantasy he'd been living suffered a violent reality check. This chick meant business. Hell—this chick personified business.
Had she been anyone else—a balding, middle-aged man, for example, or a sweet, apologetic young thing doing her best to save the family homestead—he might have folded right there and then. It was just a day job, after all. Something else would come along—another window would crack open. It always did.
OK, he would have taken her out on a sympathy plea; he wasn't stupid. And after that recourse failed, he would have packed up, patted Agnes on the head, and made his final exit from the City of Angels Detective Agency. No harm, no foul, and a new dark alley.
But it hadn't been anyone else. It was Maddie Hayes, and she was strung tight enough to make any old guitar picker want to reach out and pluck a string—just to see if it would break.
And boy, did it ever. With one resounding smack she'd captured his eternal interest.
Years down the road, he would wonder just how many strings had already broken by the time she first stepped into his office. The answer was simple: too many.
Years in an industry where flesh and fortune were one and the same had tightened the strings slowly—inexorably—until one by one the strain proved too great, and they snapped with one resounding twang! Some days—some arguments—he could still hear their echo—see it in the white-hot ice behind her impossibly blue eyes and in the tremble of her perfectly lined and glossed lips.
It took him awhile to realize the woman couldn't afford to lose many more strings. At the time the knowledge had eluded him. He'd simply been fascinated by the way anger transformed Miss America, Business Division into an avenging angel fit for any wall or ceiling in Rome.
There was something comforting in her anger—something almost human. The marble expression of competence and efficiency evaporated with the heat of her fury. It was captivating to watch, and then after the anger—like sun after a rainstorm or new buds after the spring thaw—there emerged a soft tenderness that he never would have expected to lurk beneath her usually diamond-hard demeanor. In those few brief moments of vulnerability, she managed to slide right past all of his own carefully constructed defenses and settle down in the piece of his soul he'd sworn no woman would gain access to again.
Like the day she'd walked into his office for the countless time—maybe the last—with all the piss and vinegar from her first entrance gone as she glanced up from her shoes to meet his eyes. "The first clump of dirt on your coffin—I want to be the one to throw it."
And the night she'd almost tripped over him on her stairs—the night when the Blue Moon Detective Agency had ceased to exist, and they'd both felt the loss so much more than they'd ever expected.
"Hire me," she'd said softly, smiling as she turned his own arguments against him. "'Cause I see what you don't, 'cause I see what you can't, because you've just begun to hit your stride, because the best is yet to come..."
And he'd laughed in spite of himself, entranced by her sweet sincerity in the moonlight. "You're hired." Because she was right—the best was yet to come.
And God—the fury and the fights and the pain—they were all worth those few fleeting moments of Maddie—soft, sweet, and loving—for him.
But then he hadn't realized that the more strings he plucked and snapped for entertainment, the less presented themselves to his eager fingers. And the more scabs he uncovered to glimpse the soft pink skin underneath, the more calluses formed where tender flesh had hidden. He hadn't known how finite a person's propensity to heal could be.
And sprawled on the floor, rubbing his cheek with grudging admiration and growing interest, he hadn't cared.
After all, it was just a day job.