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Killer Coin
Author: Elka Ray

 

CHAPTER 1:

THE FEMME FATALE

 

The jeweler beneath my office has been blasting Christmas carols since October in an attempt to inspire us all to spend money. Now, with December looming, he’s tired of the classics and moved on to sellout pop stars’ renditions: Maroon 5’s heinous cover of “Happy Christmas (War Is Over),” Bruce Springsteen’s groaner “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and—just when you thought it couldn’t get worse—John Denver’s jaunty classic “Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk on Christmas).” Talk about depressing.

I’m trying not to moan along in my head when my phone beeps—a reminder of my 4:00 p.m. appointment.

I straighten the papers on my desk. According to my day-planner, a Mrs. Butts is scheduled to see me. A new client. Anticipation sends a buzz through my belly. After five years spent clawing my way up the career ladder at a big Toronto law firm, it was a hard decision to move home to Victoria last summer. While I love being closer to my mom—and am thrilled to finally have a social life—the slower pace at work is driving me a little crazy.

In Toronto, I had clients who really needed me—most of them women, unhappily married to Type A assholes determined not to share a red cent. Stopping these women from being beaten to financial and emotional pulp was hard but satisfying. I loved forcing bullies to share. Of course, some of my clients were the jerks, which was interesting too. Every day was a challenge.

In contrast, here on sleepy Vancouver Island, even estranged couples are chilled out. They’re all about caring and sharing, determined to settle things amicably. Nobody contests anything. While that should make me happy, I’m bored stiff. Any more uncontested divorces and my brain cells might take early retirement.

As it is, my brain seems to be working on island-time. When someone knocks on my door, it takes me too long to answer. It can’t be the firm’s receptionist, Pamela. She just barges straight in. I smooth down my jacket. “Yes?” My throat sounds rusty.

Downstairs, mercifully, the John Denver tune warbles to an end. It might be time to buy the jeweler some new tunes as an early Christmas gift. The knock comes again, or rather three knocks: fast but quiet. I get to my feet and head for the door. Some clients are too timid to let themselves in. I cross my fingers—please, please, let Mrs. Butts bring a challenge, before I expire of boredom.

I am reaching for the doorknob when the door opens, forcing me to step back. A glossy red high-heeled shoe strides through the gap, followed by another. The buzz in my gut flares into a spine-straightening jolt. I take another step backward.

The woman smiles. I do too. One look at Mrs. Butts and I know my wish has been granted: She is the femme fatale in every noir movie ever made. There’s no way she’s here to end anything amicably. All she needs is a pearl-handled pistol.

From her cascade of dark curls to her luminous skin, Mrs. Butts is a vision in high gloss. I blink, dazzled.

She stops to survey me too. “Ms. Vong?”

I extend a hand. “Yes, hello. I’m Toby Wong.”

“I am Vonda.” Her voice is husky with an Eastern European edge, the kind of voice that would make men melt. Even my knees have softened. She’s definitely not local.

We shake, her hand so cool and soft I’m surprised by the strength of her grip. Beneath lashes like palm fronds her cool grey eyes take me in.

I point her toward my desk. We both cross the small room and sit. Vonda sets her purse on her lap. She leans forward. “I vant a divorce. As quickly as possible.”

I nod. No surprise there, divorce being my specialty, although most new clients start with small talk. “Okay. How long have you been married?” I ask, pen in hand.

“Three months.” Her candy-apple lips contort. “He is a liar,” she hisses.

Before she gets into it, I extract the basics. Name: Vonda Butts nee Sokolov. Age: thirty-three. My age, although that’s where the similarity ends: me petite, attractive-enough, and Vonda like the cover girl of a men’s magazine, only prettier. Citizenship: Russian. Occupation: this elicits a blank look and a pause, followed by a shrug that says it should be obvious: Model and Influencer. She’s got 782,000 Instagram followers. Spouse’s name and job: This gets her going again.

“Dennis Butts.” She spits the name angrily. Her shiny red talons grip my desk. “Vine-dealer,” she says. “If that’s even true. He is a liar. A professional liar. He misleaded me.”

As a grammar nerd, I almost blurt “misled,” but manage to stop myself: English is her second language, for god’s sake. Plus there’s no time. Insults are flying like shrapnel from a homemade incendiary device: lazy-good-for-nothing-no-good-lying-scum . . .

I manage to break in. “Are you separated?”

“Not yet.”

This surprises me. She’s so angry. How could she still be living with the guy? “Why not?” I ask.

She crosses her shapely arms. “Financial reasons.”

I fish out my usual forms detailing the divorce process in Canada and slide them across my desk. “What’s called a No Fault Divorce is by far the easiest and cheapest way to get divorced in Canada. You can apply as soon as you and your spouse separate. Your divorce will go through after you live apart for one year.”

One of Vonda’s perfectly groomed eyebrows gives a horrified twitch. “One year? I cannot vait one year!”

“Um, why not?” I ask.

Again, her look says I’ve missed the obvious. “Vhat if I vant to remarry?”

“Ah,” I say, trying to hide my dismay. “So there’s someone else?” Adultery is grounds for Fault divorce. But since she’s my client I’d prefer she’s not the one doing the dirty.

“Not yet,” says Vonda, coyly.

She glances at my brochures, her frown deepening, then waves a slender, ring-bedecked hand. “I do not vant a No Fault divorce,” she says, through gritted teeth. “This is all his fault. I leaved my home, come all the vay here and . . .” Strong emotion has weakened her English. A single tear rolls down her smooth pink cheek. “He deceived me,” she whispers.

I hand her my trusty tissue box. It’s time to delve into her marriage. “How?” I ask.

“I meet him online,” says Vonda. “Vhen I vas living in my homeland, Vladivostok. He vas so charming and . . .” Her eyelashes dip. “I trusted him.”

Without meaning to, I click the pen in my hand. “So, did you meet in person before you got married?”

Vonda’s slims nostrils flare. She sounds affronted. “But of course. Ve met in Paris. During Fashion Veek. I vas there on business.”

Guilt makes me look down. I misjudged her, and succumbed to prejudice—the poor, Russian mail-order bride, with nothing going for her but good looks and a killer set of onion domes. Having spent my whole life battling racist assumptions, I should know better. Just because she looks like a caricature doesn’t mean she’s not a person of substance. Plenty of savvy women—models, actresses, the Kardashians—have leveraged their looks into business empires.

Lost in memories of Paris, Vonda’s gaze turns misty. “Ve stayed at the George V. Strolled on Les Champs Elysees. It vas vonderful, very romantic.”

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