postheadericon "Final Exam" by Michael Mallory


Margie nervously fiddled with her coffee cup as the younger woman laid out the photos on the coffee table, carefully and deliberately, as though they were Tarot cards. The pictures were grainy and blurry, and even for somebody who knew as little about photography as Margie, the composition was atrocious. Obviously, they had been taken in a great hurry. But even with all the technical flaws, she had little trouble identifying the two people whose images were captured in the pictures.
"You can't see the man's face too clearly here," Sonia pointed out, but to Margie, it did not matter. It was not necessary to see her husband Patrick's face, since his birthmark, the one that was normally hidden by his underwear, was in perfect focus.
Margie examined the image of the woman in the photos. "You have a beautiful body, you must work out," she said, her anger and heartache tinged with a touch of bitter envy. Then again, she judged the woman, who gave her name as Sonia, to be in her late 20's. At that age, Margie herself had been a looker, or so men regularly told her. Including Patrick.
"Thank you," Sonia said, with a polite smile. "I try to get to the gym every day. Keeping yourself in shape is a requirement of the job. Do you want to see the rest?"
Taking a deep breath, Margie nodded.

Sonia No-Last-Name-Please, the beautiful bronze goddess, who in person was very professionally and conservatively dressed, withdrew another manilla folder from her briefcase. "Before I show you these, Mrs. Cargill, I need to make sure that you fully understand the particulars of our arrangement. The pictures you have seen thus far are damaging, but not legally incriminating. You may decide now that you wish to see no more, and if so, this case will be closed. The entire file will be destroyed, except for one set of photos, which we will retain. But the minute I show you further evidence, all aspects of our agreement, including payment, must be carried out."
"I understand," Margie said. "Let's see them."
"Very well." Sonia unsealed the envelope and slid out the photos, arranging them on the table, and even though Margie had been doing her best to prepare herself, she gave a sharp, involuntary gasp upon seeing them. It was no longer possible to see how beautiful Sonia's body was in this set of photos, since Patrick had wrapped himself so tightly around it.
"I am very sorry," Sonia said, placing a comforting hand on Margie's arm.
"No, it's alright," Margie answered. "I can't honestly say that I'm surprised." In truth, if she had not at least suspected that Patrick would cheat on her at the first opportunity, she would not have spent the money on a professional spouse testing service.
The encounter had taken place during Patrick's last business trip in Seattle, according to Sonia, and Margie had no reason to doubt her. Sonia had been posing as a lawyer in town for a convention and had finally introduced herself to Patrick in the bar of his hotel. As Margie understood the procedure, it was up to Sonia to instigate the encounter and send out unmistakably flirtatious signals. But after that, it was up to the testee to either carry or drop the ball for a score or an incomplete pass.
"If it is any consolation, Mrs. Cargill," Sonia was saying, "I've personally tested over one hundred men during my time with the Agency, and your husband showed more initial reluctance than most."
I'm sure that's a lie, Margie thought, but it's a considerate lie. In spite of everything, she had come to like this woman who, behind the fashion model face and swimsuit-issue figure, seemed like a real, caring person. Scooping up the horrible photos and handing them back to Sonia, she said: "I imagine you need these back?"
"Yes, we keep them on file," Sonia answered. "It's a kind of insurance plan. So, if there are no further questions, Mrs. Cargill, I am going to have to ask you for the payment and then be off. I have a 2:00 appointment."

"Yes, of course," Margie said, getting up and crossing to the bureau in the dining room, where after a moment of fishing through fifteen years' worth of tablecloths and old placemats, she found a white, overstuffed envelope. Feeling older and more weary than she had ever felt before, she carried the envelope over and handed it to Sonia. "All in twenties, just as you specified."
"Thank you," the other woman said, tucking the envelope into her briefcase, then closing it with a resounding snap. She rose, extended her beautifully manicured hand and smiled. "I must tell you, Mrs. Cargill, that you are taking this extremely well. So many women I deal with cry and sob and beg at the last minute to be released from the agreement, even after the warning, and when they realize they cannot, they begin to blame me for all their problems. That, of course, is why we keep the photos. We cannot afford any afterthought lawsuits."
"Of course," Margie said, accepting her hand. "There was a time when I might have even been one of those women myself. But not now. Patrick was tested and he failed, pure and simple, so he must pay the price. But do you have any idea of when the deal will be completed?" She had almost said consummated, but that, of course, was redundant.
"On Thursday," Sonia answered.
"Hmmm. I suppose I shall have to make corned beef and cabbage for dinner Wednesday night. That's Patrick's favorite meal."
As Margie walked Sonia to the door, she asked: "And will you be doing the job yourself?"
"Oh yes, and I am an expert markswoman. It will look like just another drive-by shooting, quick, clean and with no clear motive or suspects. Just another senseless tragedy in a world filled with them. I assure you, Mrs. Cargill, he will feel nothing."
A sad smile formed on Margie's face. "He hasn't for quite some time," she said, opening the door for her husband's killer.




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