‘They’d become friends. More than friends. Wilma loved her, of that Maggie was sure. And – the realisation hit home – she loved Wilma.’
Extract taken from Payback
By Claire Macleary
Published by Saraband Books
‘Without Wilma?’ Maggie questioned, her voice rising a full octave.
‘Think about it,’ said her friend Val. The two were on one of what had become their regular FaceTime calls. ‘You’d halve your overheads.’
‘Near enough. Plus, cut down on the stress factor. Didn’t you say the woman has been giving you grief?’
‘Not grief, so much as…’ Maggie hesitated. ‘…she’s full-on, Wilma. But not in a bad way,’ she hastened to add. She recalled the day her new neighbour had first appeared on her doorstep, all fake tan and sprayed-on leggings. How sniffy she, Maggie, had been. And look at them, now, like an old married couple. ‘Wilma means well,’ she argued, somewhat lamely.
‘That’s as may be. But wasn’t it Wilma who talked you into taking on that missing person case?’
‘It was, yes. But with the best of intentions.’
Val ignored this. ‘And isn’t that the root of your current financial crisis: that the client hasn’t paid your bill?’
‘That,’ Maggie conceded, ‘and other things.’ She hadn’t yet reached a final decision on Colin’s sixth year studies.
‘All I’m saying is, now you’re a lone parent, you have to look after number one.’
‘Let me ask you a question: what’s most important to you?’
Maggie deliberated for a moment, then, ‘Two things. My kids, obviously: keeping a roof over their heads.’
‘My point, exactly,’ Val said. ‘And in order to achieve that, you need to maintain a steady income stream. If you off-loaded Wilma, it would be a major cost saving. You’d be able to run the agency without outside influence, and…’
‘That’s all very well in theory,’ Maggie countered, ‘but I couldn’t do it on my own. Wilma gets through a ton of work. She does most of the computer research, runs virtually all the credit checks, and…’
‘You could employ an intern: some bright young thing who would not only be computer-savvy but full of energy. Cost you nothing, or next to nothing.’
‘Mmm.’ Maggie pondered, furrowing her brow. The idea had never crossed her mind. ‘Notwithstanding. Wilma’s way more savvy than me. Knows…’
‘…all sorts of dodgy stuff,’ Val finished the sentence for her. ‘From what you’ve told me, that neighbour of yours may well have been a Godsend when you were starting out. But now the agency is established, ask yourself this: does Wilma Harcus reflect the image I want to present?’
‘No, but…’ Pictures flashed in front of Maggie’s eyes: the countless times she’d been embarrassed by Wilma’s appearance, like when she’d turned up to an important presentation in skin-tight Lycra and white stilettos. Not to mention the questionable investigative tactics Maggie had learned to turn a blind eye to: picking locks, sticking trackers on vehicles. And those were just the ones Wilma had admitted to.
‘You could sell it to her as a temporary lay-off, just until you get back on your feet financially.’
‘I’d find that hard,’ Maggie protested. ‘Wilma worked for no wages when we first started out. She’s put in countless hours since that she hasn’t billed for. She has a lot invested in the business.’
‘She’s got other jobs, hasn’t she?’
‘Two things, you said?’
‘Keeping my kids safe and clearing the Laird name. But I’ve hit a brick wall with that one. Inspector Chisolm has tried to persuade 16 his superiors to re-open George’s case, but they don’t want to know. And as time goes on…’ She broke off, voice wavering.
‘I’d forget about it,’ Val counselled, her face filled with concern. ‘Consign it to the past. No point worrying over something you can’t change.’
‘But I’ve come so far,’ Maggie wailed. ‘Getting George’s partner, Jimmy Craigmyle, to give a statement was a big step forward.’
‘That I grant you. Who’d have believed something as minor as turning off a tape recorder could have had such far-reaching consequences?’
‘Tell me about it,’ Maggie concurred. ‘Turned my whole life upside down.’
‘Yes, but what you have to remember is it wasn’t your decision that caused this situation, so stop beating yourself about the head over it.’
‘Easier said than done.’
‘The other chap – the drug dealer – didn’t you tell me he’d gone missing.’
‘Bobby Brannigan? That’s right.’
‘Any news on him?’
‘Not at the last count.’
‘The police,’ Val prompted. ‘Are they active?’
‘No.’ ‘Well, then. My advice to you is to drop the whole thing. I’ve watched it eating away at you, and that can’t be good. Life has moved on, Maggie. Time you did, too.’
‘I suppose,’ Maggie conceded, unconvinced.
‘Talking of moving on, isn’t it high time you packed in your Seaton job?’
‘It’s only a few hours out my week, and…’
‘…by your own admission earns peanuts. Seems a lot of effort for not a lot.’
‘That’s as may be. But those kids, Val, they need me. If you could see them: undersized, underweight. They come into school hungry, some of them. Steal food – sachets of sugar, sauce, you name it -just to stay alive. It’s Dickensian.’
‘Sometimes, you have to make hard decisions in order to…’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ Maggie debated, her head spinning. It was all very well for Val, sitting in Dubai with a wealthy husband and a houseful of servants. And, besides, Val didn’t have children.
‘Couldn’t you take out a short-term loan? I’d offer, but I’d have to ask…’
‘Then, it seems to me cutting Wilma’s salary is the quickest route to solving your problems. Don’t you agree?’
‘Yes, but…’ It’s not just about salary, Maggie thought. Wilma looked up to her, looked out for her. They’d become friends. More than friends. Wilma loved her, of that Maggie was sure. And – the realisation hit home – she loved Wilma.
‘Promise me you’ll think about it,’ Val urged.
‘I promise,’ Maggie replied. Though in her heart she knew it wasn’t much of a promise at all.
Payback by Claire Macleary is published by Saraband Books, priced £8.99