1.63 Crazy Like A Fox

Sitting in front of the Senior Center I had a fifteen-minute window before my next fare. Still full from my Aunt’s excellent spread I left my turkey and Havarti on rye in my lunch box. Deciding instead to act on her intelligence. Sarah answered her phone on the third ring.

Sarah (trying hard to keep her amusement in check and failing): “Sooooo how was your night?”

Me (laughing with her): “Oh shut it.” 

Sarah: “Why were you guys dressed like the Three Musketeers last night?”

Me (exasperated): “Pirates, we were pirates. And Wood thought it the perfect moment for payment on a delinquent bet.”

Sarah’s only response – laughter. I sincerely hope she’s somewhere where Little Ben can’t overhear her. Speaking of that pain in the….

Me: “So how’s Little Ben doing this morning?”

Sarah (imitating Little Ben at the end): “His Highness is pitching a fit and falling in it, ‘I stayed up all night, and they still got away.’.”

Me: “Does he have a clue?”

Sarah: “Nope.”

Me: “Well that’s a relief. But I had a different reason for the call.”

Sarah: “Oh yeah? What’s up?”

Me: “I need to know when Tiffany Grindle is scheduled to arrive at Nevermore.”

Sarah (whistling): “You don’t ask for small favors. I suppose you don’t want to tell me why you want to know.”

Me (trying hard not to sound too desperate): “I know, I know. I promise it’s nothing compromising and it is important…”

Sarah: “On one condition.”

Me (very wary): “….Okay.”

Why do all my friends have to be smart? Or in this case crafty. Sarah, being one of eight siblings (plus an endless network of cousins), knows precisely when she holds a trump card. It’s one of the reasons why I love and fear her. 

Sarah: “Well it’s more provisional in flavor.”

Me: “Still not resting easy over here.”

Sarah: “When Big Ben gives you your job back…”

Me: “Sarah, he approved my lay-off.”

Sarah (going on despite my interruption): “When Big Ben sobers up from whatever Little Ben has laced his whiskey with, I would like you to open Tiderington vault. I’ve always wanted to know if the rumor that Helena was buried wearing all her diamonds is true.”

Me (startled): “What?”

Sarah: “To gruesome? Okay…. How about opening the Lenfest mausoleum to see if old man Gus laid his books to rest after he read them to pieces.”

Me: “Seriously? Substantiating rumors?” 

*Sigh* So Sarah may know when she holds a trump card, but her ultimate use of them may need some work. Perhaps its the difference between being a twenty-something and a thirty-something.

Sarah: “I’ve been working here for eight years, and I’ve heard all kinds of things about the place. Just once I’d like to see with my own eyes if any of the stories are true! Tell me, is there really a giant crypt underneath the main house? Or a cellar full of bottles of cognac? Is the Gray Man real? Why are there no burials under the old willow in the middle of Nevermore? Is the Masonic cenotaph really the doorway to their meeting hall?”

Me (rolling my eyes on the other end of the line): “Where on earth did you hear that? And do you think this is the best use of a favor?”

Sarah: “Yes! These questions have been burning in my mind since I heard them on the playground! I gots to know!”

Me: “Since grade school? And here I thought you’d ask me for something sensible, like renting you the apartment over the maintenance center, so you could move out of your folk’s house.”

Sarah (jubilant): “Yes that! Could you do that? Then I could explore…I mean, be on call whenever you need me!”

Me: “Of course this is all dependent on Big Ben hiring me back, which again I must state, he approved.”

Sarah: “Pish posh, you’ll get your job back. Simon’s started a pool on when it’ll happen, and all the dates are taken! And if you feel bad about the slim possibility that you won’t be able to hold up your end of the bargain….Well, then you can…..get me fifty bucks worth of those homemade marshmallows from the candy store we stopped at up on the way home from the Fall Foliage Tour!”

Me: “Marshmallows.”

Sarah: “Yup, marshmallows. Do we have a deal?”

What’s the old saying? Crazy like a fox? Yes, Sarah’s crazy like a fox. 

My car was going to smell like candy floss again.

(Crayons and coloring worksheet are my photos. The Hallway Photo is courtesy of Unsplash and the Throng of Kids Photo is Courtesy of NYPL)

1.62 Connections

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(Aunt Pearl’s breakfast spread!)

Looking far more alert than he had a few minutes previously (I blame the bacon, coffee would never do this to me) Wood went on, “Yeah, Morticia and I met Ranger…Ranger…Ranger Lade when we stayed at the Hilltop Hotel, on Ross Lake.” Eating a slice of bacon thoughtfully, “Morticia did you ever send him those scones you were talking about?”

My Aunt glanced between Wood and I, “Why would she send him scones?”

Please let the toaster catch on fire. 

Before I could answer Wood lept in, “Morticia and the Ranger lobbed some pointed words at each other, which she regretted afterward. She thought sending scones might make up for her part in the episode. So did you?”

Tap dancing around my actual actions, “Nope, no bacon maple scones for the ranger. I thought it set a poor precedent to send pastries to anyone I crossed swords with, plus it felt a wee-bit stalkery.”

Please let my Aunt take the bait.

Okay, I know this conversation doesn’t sound dangerous. However, I saw the trap that Wood’s words inadvertently placed before me. 

While strangers might not be able to figure out the part I played in leading the police to Mr. Grindle – these three could. Wood’s curiosity and intelligence could knit together Aunt and Uncle’s facts with what happened on our trip – thus leading him to me. My Uncle’s intuition coupled with a few peculiar incidents from my childhood (and Wood’s commentary) would allow him to make the same leap. Then there’s my Aunt, whose lie detector is finely wrought after four decades worth of students filtering through her home economics classroom. She can sniff out a lie at fifty paces. Which would cause her to ask more and more awkward questions until Wood and/or Uncle figured out I sent the anonymous letter.

(Just for the record, I don’t generally try to lie my way out of awkward conversations that my…..knack……occasionally places me in. I might hedge, nudge or massage the truth sometimes – see above – but outright lying I work hard on avoiding. The consequences, when you get caught, are never good. Especially when Wood discovers one. But that’s another story entirely.)

Fortunately, Aunt Pearl was unable to resist the softball I pitched her way, “What have I always said Phoebe? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” These advise adjacent words caused Wood to smirk into his coffee cup and my Uncle to pat me on the back. My Aunt simply waited for my agreement.

Interjecting before the required response could leave my lips, “In Morticia’s defense he did call her stupid….” Wood’s words sent my Aunt and Uncle into fits. In the hubbub he’d created I cleared away my dishes and grabbed a slice of bacon for the road.

Knocking the conversation off on a new tangent (and further away from flimsy ground), “Uncle can I bum a ride back to the Lavender Lady? My shift starts in an hour, and I need to shower and change.” 

Pushing himself away from the table. Uncle cleared his plate and headed towards the door, “No problem.” He paused for a moment while I gathered up the bits and pieces from my pirate ensemble. Eventually, I followed him to the door. 

Both he and my Aunt ignored the rubber ducks which spilled out of my bag and onto the floor while I fumbled with my jacket.

1.61 Distraction!

Praying to any god who’d listen that we could divert my Aunt’s warped sense of humor, “Good Morning Uncle!” On the other side of the screen door, my Uncle set his golf clubs down on the porch.

Wood chimed in with a mouth full of eggs and bacon, “Morning! How was golf?” Wood winced as the screen door banged loudly against the frame when my Uncle walked into the kitchen.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full Dourwood.” My Aunt reminded him for the millionth time since we were children, “Dear I was just reading to them from this morning’s police blotter.” 

A smile crept to the corners of his mouth, “Ah! I see.” 

Walking across the kitchen he put his hand on my Aunt’s shoulder (she was starting to get up) and kissed her cheek while cuffing the back of Wood’s head, he then circled the table to plant a kiss on my crown. Completing the revolution around the table, he snagged the coffee pot off the stove – filling up a cup for himself and refilling ours. With the essential tasks taken care of, he sat down across from my Aunt. 

She continued to pursue her twisted strain of conversation, “Seems the police think last night’s troubles could be a prelude to this year’s senior prank. Other than students, who else would dress up to trespass?” With this shot, my Aunt got up to fix my Uncle a plate. The instant she turned her back Wood sent my Uncle a hang-dog look while I laid my head on his shoulder and made doe eyes at him.

Happily, he helped us out, “Thank you for asking about my golf game Wood.” 

My Aunt let loose a snort then tried to pretend she was containing a sneeze.

My Uncle’s side quivered but his voice stayed even, “I kept my score relatively low today, but Earl’s game was all over the map. Seems he was on the job until the wee hours of the morning investigating a case.”

Wood and I both froze our cute appeals for help melting into sick smiles. They were serious enough about rubber ducks that they assigned a detective to investigate? 

Aunt Pearl placed a full plate in front of my Uncle, “Really? A case from last night you say?” She managed to pack in both glee and worry into her tone. 

My Uncle took a large bite of eggs, then toast and chewed them slowly while the three of us held our breath waiting for him to finish.

Peppering his eggs, he started to take another bite when my Aunt (with a touch of impatience) attempted to tease a response out of my taciturn Uncle, “Dear, what new case is Earl working on?” 

My Uncle’s sides quivered harder, “The Tiffany Grindle case took an unexpected turn.”

Distraction achieved!

Wood cocked his head, my Aunt gave him the shorthand version of Tiffany’s disappearance and subsequent reappearance. Listening to her ‘news’ all over again I tried to merge my facts with her newly unearthed information – it painted quite the picture. When she finished my Uncle picked up the conversational thread.

Putting his fork down for the moment, “Seems Grindle confessed not only to Tiffany and David Waller’s murders but to two more, a woman he dated a few years ago who strayed and a coworker who got a promotion he coveted. Seems Grindle is a very jealous man.”

“Really?” I asked. The information sent my mind reeling back to my dilemma the corner of Bitter and Sweet. Nothing warms the heart like the knowledge that you’d chosen the correct course of action.

My Uncle nodded, “Really. He seemed ready to get it off his chest. Earl reckons the anonymous tip came from him.” 

My Aunt did her best impression of an Irish Setter, “Anonymous tip?”

Smiling now my Uncle continued, “Yes, the only real loose end left. The ranger who found the remains went into the woods following information from an anonymous letter sent to him specifically. It contained GPS coordinates, pictures, a map and a statement of what he would find there. Grindle swears he never sent the letter. I tend to believe him. The letter was specific, but no prints were found on any of the papers, and it didn’t mention anything about Waller.” Shrugging off his consternation, my Uncle picked up his knife and fork and finished off the tail end of his breakfast.

Wood who looked much less bleary-eyed now asked, “This ranger, did he have a limp and an attitude?”

My Uncle’s turn to look curious, “As a matter of fact he did.”

Well, hell. Wood would make that connection.

1.60 The News!

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“How can finding her after twenty years not be the most interesting part?” I queried, putting my fork down on my plate and picked up my coffee. The Daily Harvest and breakfast could wait my Aunt Pearl could not.

“They found a second skeleton!”

Leaning forward in my chair, coffee forgotten in my hand, Aunt Pearl knew she commanded my full attention.

“They found David Waller buried with her. Seems he went missing the same weekend Tiffany did. Police never had an inkling they were connected.” Aunt Pearl paused to take a pan of muffins from the oven, “They questioned Tiffany’s friends again, and they admitted they thought it possible that she was having an affair. But they weren’t sure.” Wearing an oven mitt, she started moving the muffins from the cooling rack onto a plate.

“Were her friends covering for her the weekend she went missing?”

“No, she really had canceled on their beach trip. They thought something was off but didn’t press.” Aunt Pearl placed the plate on the table and sat down across from me, speaking in a low voice. 

“Earl {family friend and detective} told your Uncle the search and rescue operation they’d mounted for her in the Cascades, where they found her car, was perfunctory at best. The wildfires in the area provided a convenient excuse to call it off so quickly. Detectives at the time agreed with her father’s explanation that Tiffany left town with her newest paramour and they’d abandoned her car in the lot. She’d walked out on her husband once before and had a string of affairs over their short marriage. The search was organized to placate the paper, not her family.”

I felt supremely glad Earl was on the job now, he’d never let such a pat explanation suffice. 

She shook her head and took a sip of her coffee, “I remember her from my class. Smart. Good grades. But always more interested in her male classmates than anything we were trying to teach her. Her father never approved of what he called ‘her running around’, we told him she’d grow out of it.” 

While Aunt Pearl’s mind’s eye looked backwards in time, I took another bite of breakfast and tried to pull her away from all the coulda/woulda/shoulda’s, “Do they have a suspect?”. 

Looking up from the depths of her coffee she admonished me, “Don’t speak with your mouth full dear.”

She never could resist the bait.

Her eyes gleaming again, “And yes they have a suspect. Her husband! Now, this is hush-hush, they found his wedding ring in the grave with the bodies. He confessed to their murders when he saw it and he also…”

The topic closed abruptly when we heard the groaning floorboards (and human) walking down the hall. Wood, unaware and uncaring of anything outside of the bacon/sausage smells emanating from the kitchen (I am only guessing here), planted himself next to Aunt Pearl and started munching on a slice of bacon snagged from my plate. “No one would guess you are a highly respected doctor by looking at you this morning.” commented my Aunt. He was indeed a sight to behold, having slept in his breeches and linen shirt – his cravat hung like a limp noddle from his neck. Blinking at her he tried to swipe another piece of bacon off my plate – I curled protectively around it fending off his advances. 

Laughing I added on, “He’s the cautionary tale old grizzled pirates point out to the young mateys – pace your pillaging or end up a walking wrinkle.” Ignoring both of us, he shuffled to the cupboard and grabbed a plate, saucer and cup then started putting together his breakfast.

“Speaking of pillaging…”, my aunt flipped the paper around so she could read it.

This bodes well.

Her enameled fuchsia fingernail followed the lines of newsprint in front of her, “The police blotter says that officers and security personnel pursued the Three Musketeers thru Nevermore and MacGregor farm last night. And this morning they discovered forty rubber ducks buried in a field. You two wouldn’t know anything about it? Would you?” Aunt Pearl asked dramatically. (I say dramatically because she was ‘reading’ the paper without her glasses, a feat which she hasn’t been able to accomplish for fifteen or so years).

Ignoring our silence on the matter she pressed onwards, “I know we picked you up outside Nevermore, but that was this morning! And you were definitely pirates, not seventeenth-century French soldiers made famous by Dumas!” Did I mention my Aunt still occasionally substituted for the literature teacher at Rye High?

“Look Wood! Uncle’s here!”

1.59 Breakfast With Aunt Pearl

(Aunt Pearl makes the best gingerbread muffins!)

The floorboards groaned underfoot as I made my way down the hallway towards the beckoning scents of bacon and coffee. The others were still snuggled in their sleeping bags on the living room floor, the fire in the hearth warming their toes. Walking into the kitchen the vintage red cherry wallpaper, red enamel sink, glass front cupboards and white walls waved a cheery ‘hello’ in my direction. Aunt Pearl stood at the stove cooking enough food to feed a small army or Wood in the morning. 

Walking to the cupboard, I opened it and grabbed a cup and saucer – then poured the best concoction man has ever made into the cup – coffee. Sitting down at the kitchen table I took a moment and savored the very first sip of the day. My Aunt familiar with this ritual waited until said sip passed my lips before making conversation, “The others still asleep?”

Resting my elbows on the tabletop, I held the cup under my nose, “Yeah, they’ll be out for a while yet. Long night.” 

More specifically a whole lotta spiced rum. 

 I did know she wasn’t irritated about last night’s late hour since she never threatened to put us over her knee. Wood and I might be thirty-something but every now and again we do something silly enough to warrant her standard threat (which in all fairness she’s never actually carried out). It’s just her way of letting us know we’re leaning on her last nerve.

“Thanks for coming to get us last night and grabbing Beatrice’s car on the way her,” taking a nice big second gulp of coffee, trying to quickly conclude this portion of the conversation.

After flipping some flapjacks onto a plate, she answered, “Your welcome dear. We thought it would be faster to pick you up than bail you out.” 

Laughing softly into my cup, “I’m sure it had nothing to do with Wood texting you to come get him and his mateys, right?”

So, amongst the giggling last night during our impromptu sleepover, which struck all our silly bones, Wood admitted that he’d texted Aunt Pearl and Uncle to come get us. She’d asked him to take a photo of me in full pirate regalia when I settled up on our ancient bet. He did one better and tempted her out of the house at one in the morning to take her own pictures. I am pretty sure she’s going to get an eight by ten made and place it smack dab in the middle of the living room mantle. 

Could be worse. 

Robbie howled when we’d stumbled in the front door, he’d been eating a late dinner with them when he got the text from me – I didn’t mention a word about our ensembles. During dessert, Aunt Pearl got Wood’s follow up text which coaxed her into action. Robbie stayed to see how committed we were to the bit, he should have known we’d go full pirate – it was Wood’s plan after all. Wood did apologize for my mortification, but The Brace Affair went so spectacularly awry, he really felt we needed to end the night with a laugh. 

Which happened……eventually.

Aunt Pearl’s voice recalled me from my musings, “Of course not dear, that was just a happy accident.” Her voice sounded bland, but I knew better. Her back was turned because she didn’t want to show how funny she found the entire situation last night. She doesn’t get roped into our mischief very often, anymore. “Are you working today?”

Feeling the marrow in my bones droop, “Yes. Just a half day though. I only have two more days, including today, left of this insanity.”

“Well hard work builds character.”, she placed a plate of fresh pancakes in front of me and topped off my coffee. “To keep your energy up.”

Digging into the stack of flapjacks Aunt Pearl took the reigns of the conversation while I chewed, “Oh. Remember when you asked me about Tiffany Grindle, my old student who went missing twenty years ago?” Walking over to the table she placed the newspaper to the right of my plate an opened it to the front page (my fingers were sticky with syrup), “They found her remains last week up in the mountains about fifteen miles from where they found her car.”

I choked on my bacon.

Trying to clear my airway gave me the moment I needed to contain my jubilation, “They found her last week?”

Aunt Pearl stopped whacking my back and went back to her position in front of the stove, “Yes, apparently the police kept it under wraps until now, waiting for a positive identification. They’ve had a few false started over the years, so they wanted to make absolutely sure before they went public. But that’s not even the most interesting part!”

1.58 Penny In The Air…

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Orin (calling down to me): “We really got the old ticker going tonight didn’t we!”

The heat of my anger welded me in place. 

Unlike the Inebriated Three. 

They were, for the first time, taking a real interest in remaining free of police custody. Wood dashed to the curb intensely surveying a deserted Ash Street.  Apparently, it did not meet his expectations because he started intently texting someone. Laney meanwhile crouched down and pressed her eye against the gate’s keyhole while Beatrice mimicked her attitude only with her ear against the timbers. 

Laney (whispering): “Wood, see if anyone’s coming thru the other gate.”

Orin (leaning backwards in an exaggerated motion): “Nope, not a soul that way!”

This sent the idiot urchins on the wall into more guffaws.

Wood (after a quick check agreed): “Nothing.”

Beatrice (consternation clear): “They were right behind us.”

Ruby: “Nope! It was just us honey.”

Paul: “A bit of wind and nails raking over cement makes it sound like a whole hoard is on your heels.”

Walking over to Wood I wordlessly pulled on his lapel exposing the flasks residing in his bandolier. Slipping the last one out of the line that lay across his chest, I slowly unscrewing the top then took a deliberately long draught of spiced rum. All the while eyeing the chortling miscreants atop the wall. Their mirth sputtered out quickly under the waves of fury they finally felt rolling towards them.

Me (turning to Beatrice): “No, I think we succumbed to the sinister atmosphere of a cemetery at night.”

Beatrice (glancing at the top of the wall for a moment): “We knew they’d been chasing us, so we thought we heard feet behind us.”

Alice (contrite): “Sorry Caretaker. We didn’t mean to scare you and your friends…”

Paul (crestfallen): “….it’s just when we saw you wearing those silly costumes causing such a commotion….”

Orin (sheepish): “…we just couldn’t resist.”

Laney (looking up at me, hope unmistakably sprouting): “So no one’s on the other side? Our imaginations were working overtime?”

Me (looking first at Laney, then up to the Residents): “This is how these places get such rotten reputations, they play tricks on you.”

Orin (pleading): “Don’t be mad Caretaker. Please? Joseph sent us to help you. He and the others lead the search parties up to the Manor and Great House so you could get away. We just got carried away.”

Beatrice: “We should still get while the getting’s good. They’ll figure we gave them the slip eventually.”

Wood (beating me to the punch and with visible relief): “Don’t worry I think I see out chariot now!”

With our luck, it will be a patrol car. 

A wave of exhaustion engulfed me, extinguishing all traces of the fury threatening to explode moments before. Did Wood add Xanax to the rum tonight? More likely my adrenaline finally ran out. The Residents sensing my anger withering away, burst into a chorus of apologies aimed at all of us (irregardless that only I could hear them it’s the thought that counts).

Iris: “Looks like a station wagon Caretaker.”

Me (wondering out loud): “Why is Robbie driving Aunt Pearl’s car?”

It turns out the Resident’s weren’t the only ones playing games this evening….When the silver station wagon pulled to the curb, I figured out who Wood been texting. 

Stifled giggles erupted when Aunt Pearl and Uncle alighted from the car.

Aunt Pearl: “Well good morning! Funny running into you here.”

Yes, a real coincidence. 

Aunt Pearl (stepping on to the curb and waving her hand): “Your costumes are wonderful. Now line up in front of the gate so I can take a group picture!”

The Residents knowing they were still in the doghouse valiantly attempted to keep it together. Only an occasional muffled tee-hee-hee escaped their lips. 

Aunt Pearl (pumping he arm): “Give me a nice ‘AARRGGHHH!’ for the camera.”

If it was possible for the Residents to die of laughter they might have at this point. I really couldn’t blame them.

Aunt Pearl: “Phoebe stop glaring at Dourwood and smile!”

Wood, who’d adopted the countenance of an angel, beamed the entire time Aunt Pearl performed precise micro adjustments to our costumes, hair, stances and facial expressions. All so she could capture the perfect piratey portrait of the four of us (and the trip down memory lane, of every Halloween photo shoot we’d endured as kids, was just an added bonus). She didn’t even break stride when discovering one of our number was a complete stranger to her – ‘Don’t worry dear I’ll send a print to your folks.’ And didn’t Beatrice looked just thrilled at the prospect. 

Uncle watched the entire process with a rather amused expression – despite my pleading glances.

Joseph (wryly calling down): “You might want to head out now. The search parties are dispersing.”

Please let the earth open up and swallow me now.

1.57 Run!

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What did I do to piss off the fates? Or perhaps they were as capricious as advertised. Because we had less than a quarter mile left to travel when a  Resident called out the first warning.

Paul: “Incoming!”

Little Ben may hate teen trespassers, but he was too cheap to replace the lights they’d broken. Without a street light or steady moonlight (the moon had decided to flirt with us), The Crossroads were very dark indeed.

Brilliant for kids climbing over the wall – abominable for escaping pirates. 

So how did they spot us? 

Didn’t matter. The Inebriated Three stopped singing when the leaves started skittering and crackling a few yards behind us. The hunters were hot on our tail. 

Without urging they sped up.

Laney clung to my hand so hard it hurt.

Wood (softly calling to me): “I can hear them.”

Beatrice: “So can I, but I can’t see…”

Orin (shouting): “Run!”

Me (panting): “Orin it’s too dark, I can’t see well enough to run!”

Even before the sentence finished, I felt a frosty hand slip into mine, leading us into a reckless run to the gates. He slithered around the sunken graves while we merely attempted to avoid stumbling, falling or twisting our ankles on their fringes. The serpentine pattern of our run completely confused me. Our feet ate up the ground, but when the moonlight momentarily skipped over the grass before us, the Gates appeared no closer. All the while the hiss and crunch of our opponent’s feet running thru leaves behind us grew steadily louder.

Our legs pumped, our breath bellowed, and we hung on to each other even harder trying to combat the sweat streaking our palms.

Wood (panting): “Where are they?”

Unheeding of our distress Orin continued pulling us forward on the twisting path forged by the unceasing information called out by the other Residents.

“Fifteen yards behind you!”

“Second group cutting diagonally west trying to cut you off!”

“A third group just arrived!”

Chief Escape Artist, my ass, should’ve taken a swig from one of the innumerable passes the flasks took this evening. Maybe then anxiety wouldn’t be howling in my head, and my heart wouldn’t be readying itself to explode from fear (yes I know alcohol isn’t the answer – but right now it really was). Though the Inebriated Three didn’t sound particularly calm at the moment either, so perhaps it doesn’t dull anxiety as much as I hoped. 

The Residents gave us no quarter.

“Four heading in from the east.”

“Little Ben just arrived.”

“Two people down out of the closest group – but one’s still gaining on you.”

Even over their calls, I could hear snapping and skidding of those after us.

Beatrice (pulling up from a stumble): “My god, how many are back there?”

Wood (gasping): “Are we close?”

In answer, the Moon emerged for a moment to send a beam to illuminate the gates which were fifteen yards away. With one last burst, our legs screaming for relief, we surged forward snaking our way between the last of the markers. 

Alice: “The Gate are still free! Hurry!”

Orin slowed, then his hand disappeared from mine and was replaced by the rough wood of The Crossroads’ gate. Frantically my hands sought the lock, my ears keenly attune to the whispering leaves and grass behind us. 

Me (running my hands over the gate): “The lock, find the lock.”

“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” The Resident’s chanted. Our panic was practically palatable.

Beatrice (yelling): “Here!”

“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” Their voices riding the shrieking fear dancing across my nerves.

Fumbling with my keys, almost in tears when they slipped from my fingers, I finally found the lock and slid my key home. Twisting it I pulled the gate open, we fell thru, slammed the sucker closed together and I locked it in a flash.

Leaning against the gate, we all blinked at the sight before us – the well-preserved houses of Old Town tucked up tight, glittering under the diligent efforts of Jack Frost and ambient light. The utter peace and stillness of the night entirely at odds with our racing hearts and whistling lungs.

Nothing (other than our panting) broke the silence of the neighborhood; no rattling keys, turning locks, shouting, pounding, creaks or groans from the other side. 

Nothing split the sense of peace until Orin, and the other Residents started laughing like loons from the top of the wall.

Startled it took a moment for the other shoe to drop.