2.66 The Fool

Version 2

Half expecting to find Orin smirking at me, despite my reassurances that his presence here was unnecessary. It took a long second for the significance of the shock of snow-white hair above a pair of shoulders draped in a deep forest green suit coat to register.

Shirt.

Shirt. Shirt. Shirt!

What the forking hall is Abraham’s Errant doing in Sarah’s family’s front room? 

Keeping half an ear out for Sarah’s inevitable return, I eased inside, training my eyes on the Errant’s lean figure, looking for a flicker of movement indicating he knew I was drawing closer. 

He didn’t twitch. 

Skirting around the central coffee table, wary of the sprawling (mid-contest) Monopoly game laying on its surface and teetering along the edge, it only took a handful of seconds to reach the suited up Errant standing before the cold brick fireplace. Wrapping my fingers around his wrist immediately transformed his statuesque countenance into a struggling mass of elbows and knees intent on breaking my unbreakable grasp.

“Stop.”

Of course, this borderline order didn’t do much (or help in any way), as he continued yanking on his arm while backpedaling away from me.

Trying again, this time aiming for less authoritative and more unruffled, I identified myself in an even voice. “I am the Caretaker of Nevermore, who are you?” 

“Caretaker? Caretaker. Caretaker. Caretaker. Caretaker. Caretaker.” Crooning my title like his favorite song, he immediately stilled.

You know the protracted discordant noise a piano makes when someone depresses the pedal and hits a whole bunch of random keys at the same time? The lingering dissonance of that note is the best way to describe the Vita presently resonating under my grip. 

And if you haven’t guessed – it isn’t a good sign. 

“Yes, I am the Caretaker. Who are you?”

“The Fool. The Fool. The Fool. The Fool.” He sang softly at me.

Fantastic. 

There’s a possibility I could bring him back from the brink. However, if Abraham’s correct and The Fool’s (I’m going with it) the root cause of Rye’s missing Errants – this might be bad – as it might allow him to muster enough Vita to attack someone stronger – and win. On the other hand, it could keep him from syphoning off another Errant’s Vita to stave off Fading and/or stay sane (well saner). Thus allowing me time to find his Origin Point. And technically speaking, I haven’t uncovered anything corroborating Abraham’s claims…

Weaving a delicate thread of my own Vita into The Fool’s, I strove to balance his.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“Help…” The singsong sound cadence belied the naked desperation painting his face.

Not wanting to overwhelm him, I braided a slightly sturdier fiber of Vita in with The Fool’s, bringing it closer to equipoise. “How can I help? What’s your name? Where’s your Origin Point?..” Unfortunately, a series of thumps, bumps, and thuds interrupted my litany of the Six Ws (the foundations of problem-solving). 

“Morticia?”

The Fool, finally able to form full sentences, and sandwiched his desperation into them – did so. “Please, let me go. If I don’t see you with her, I won’t have to tell them about you.” 

Listening to the swish of Sarah’s nylon coat grow closer, waves of panic started rolling off him. Just as he opened his mouth to renew his plea, I released his wrist and watched him sprint from Sarah’s living room.

“Morticia, where did you go?”

“In here.” 

Stepping towards the table, I stared down at the thimble straddling the line between jail and the just visiting square, wondering if I could figure out if The Fool was friend or foe on my own. I still needed to visit Eliza, and Abraham might’ve found out something new since I saw him last…

In the throes of woolgathering, I tuned out Sarah’s entrance into the living room. 

Every Errand and Resident have their geographical limits…It’s possible if I use Eliza’s spot and Sarah’s house as starting points…I’ve done it before…but it sounds like he needs help sooner…Shifting my gaze off the thimble, I slid it up to the apple crate filled with four binders now sitting on the davenport. Or I could keep the only tangible connection I’d found to The Fool, forego my fantasy of firing Sarah and see if I could shrug off enough hurt from the knife she buried in my back to stand her company…

Some days being an adult really sucks.

Breaking the unintended silence with a sigh, I looked Sarah square in the face and gave her the brutal truth. “I don’t know if we can remain friends after all this…”

Eyes shining brightly, Sarah attempted to interrupt. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to save…”

Holding up my hand, I didn’t let the rest of her explanation exit her mouth. “Look, I’m not ready to hear it, any of it, yet. In fact, I’d never really intended to allow you to explain, as I woke up today, thinking I was going to fire you….”

Tipping her head back, Sarah let lose a brittle, bitter laugh. “That’s funny, I’ve been working up the courage to quit for months now.”

Tilting my head at her candid comeback, I was unable to keep my interest out of my voice. “Why didn’t you?” 

Her hesitation before answering spoke volumes. “It’s complicated.”

“I get that.” Taking a deep breath, I stopped dancing around the alligator at my feet. “Okay, here’s the deal, if you don’t want to quit, I’m willing to see if we can function as co-workers…”

“I..I…Really? Are you sure?”

Pausing her, before she accepted and/or her bright eyes spilled over, I finished my offer. “…on two conditions. First and foremost, you’ll be demoted back to an undertaker. Second, until we find a new Chief, you might need to pitch in with some of the paperwork, so we don’t fall behind…Are these terms acceptable to you?”

2.65 Janus Faced

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Initially, when we’d talked today over, over rum last night, I’d meant to fire Sarah at this point in the conversation.

The meeting with Nathaniel this morning went off without a hitch. Once he spotted Big Ben tapping the cover of the Conventions – Little Ben and Leo retrieved from the topmost shelf of his closet while packing up his office – Nathaniel signed his termination paperwork without a word. Big Ben and security escorted him promptly from the premises.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t even broach the subject of dismissal with Sarah yet.

Although Big Ben and I ferreted out her copy of the Conventions (stowed away in a locked drawer of her desk), there were still four more unaccounted for, and only she knew their location. (I’d played with the notion of engaging Beatrice’s services, for finding lost things, to locate the missing binders – but she’d already dedicated enough time to Nevermore. Plus, pulling Beatrice in so I could fire Sarah faster would place me squarely on Santa’s naughty list for being a lousy friend.) 

So rather than saying something like, ‘Hey, you worked with my schoolyard archenemy to overextend and undermined Nevermore for fun and profit, pack up your tools and go.’ I engaged the intercom on Big Ben’s phone.

“Lottie, could you please bring me some water?”

“Still or sparkling?” Crackled out of the vintage speaker.

“Dealer’s choice.”

Lifting my finger off the red button, I wondered whether I should’ve asked for a paper bag instead – Sarah’s lungs were working so rapidly, and so hard I worried she was going to pass out. 

(I was concerned about her well-being – only because I was keen on keeping some of the, well, quirkier sounding guidelines, policies, and traditions from being broadcast across Rye and/or studied in detail by outside parties. Not for any lingering feelings of friendship, mind you.)

Watching the vivid red blotches gracing her cheeks swiftly dull to a light rose – I skipped around the desk to where Sarah was sitting and (nicely) shoved her head between her knees. Continuing to rest my hand on her shoulder, I managed to keep her from springing up in surprise when Lottie sashayed in (on leopard print kitten heels) carrying a bottle of water and a glass. Because of her, well indelicate attitude, Sarah missed the hairy eyeball Lottie aimed her way before retreating to her desk again. 

(Big Ben only gave Lottie the bare essentials, but apparently, she’d been uncomfortable with the trajectory of the Board for months and immediately pinned the blame on Sarah without either of us giving her a hint.)

It took a couple of minutes for Sarah to get a grip, but after she did and finished off half the water – she looked human again. Or at least less likely to pitch forward, knock herself out on the edge of the desk and require immediate medical assistance due to a self-inflicted concussion.

Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Sarah scooted back from her treacherous perch on the edge of the chair. “How did you find out?”

“Does it matter?”

“I just…No, I suppose not. So what happens now?”

“You’re going to tell me where the other copies of the Conventions are.”

Blinking, she looked slightly startled. “At my house.”

Pushing off the desk, I walked back around it and grabbed my pack. “Super, let’s go get them. I’ll drive.”

“That’s it? You don’t have any other questions for me?”

Unable to stop myself, I gave voice to the kernel of hurt throbbing near the middle of my spine. “You used Laney for information. Nearly got her, Wood, & Beatrice arrested. Tried not once but twice to have me taken into custody and managed to sweet-talk Little Ben into laying me off from the job I love – all so you could help Josie Reville break part Nevermore. Is there anything left to ask?”

The atmosphere in the Princess on the ride over to Sarah’s house was thick and entirely silent. Thank the gods above and below it was late enough in the morning all her siblings were at school or work, Sarah’s family is great, but today the last thing I’m interested in is making small talk. Pulling into the empty drive, I shut off the engine, and we exited the car.

Trailing behind Sarah to the back gate, I nearly let loose a string of four-letter words when a faint ripple of electricity started arching across my toes. Knowing said words would be misconstrued, I bit my tongue, then bit it again when the tingling in my toes grew more acute as I crossed over the threshold. 

Crap. 

Unless something seriously dramatic or highly violent occurred within these four walls, since I’d last been over (and now that I think about it, it’s been a while since Sarah’s invited me by – go figure), there’s zero reason for the pricking sensation. Her house, like ninety-four-percent of Rye, has never been a hotbed of activity for either Errants or Residents. 

Torn, my forward momentum stalled in response to my gaze bouncing between Sarah’s back (as she plodded towards the stairs) and the archway leading to the front of the house. 

Sensing I was no longer in step with her, Sarah slowly revolved back to face me. “The binders are up in my room. Do you want to come up or stay down here?”

I really wanted to follow her. 

Taking off my jacket, I slipped it and my pack onto a kitchen stool next to the island. “I’ll stay down here.” 

Silently cursing myself out, I waited until Sarah moved out of sight before scurrying over and slipping out the kitchen doorway and following the increasingly intense current arching across my toes. Treading quickly and carefully down the hallway, thankful for the thick pile of the carpet which deadened my footfalls, I approached the open arch leading to the living room – halting a hairsbreadth from the entrance.

Hugging the wall, I craned my neck just enough so I could see around the corner and inside the room.

2.64 Paper Faces On Parade

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(Okay, this isn’t the view from the Proprietor’s Office – but it does a great job of showing the two properties of glass.)

Leaning against the bookcase before the floor to ceiling windows, I watched the golden rays of dawn touch the tips of the trees on the other side of the pane. The shifting mist, rolling below the tree boughs yet just above the blades of grass, would melt away once the sunbeams reached it – but until then, the billowing grey shrouded Nevermore in an eerie haze. Wrapping my arms around my shoulders, I snuggled into the soft folds of my wool sweater and felt a wave of happiness ripple thru me. My elation swelled for a moment as I promised myself a lingering ramble across the grounds, then sadly broke apart upon the jagged rocks of reality when a presumptive rap sounded against the door.

Without waiting for an answer, Sarah strolled purposely into the Proprietor’s office. 

“Ben, I know you don’t want to, but we need to vote on the City’s offer first thing. Once we can show Western Mutual the pending numbers, I’m sure they’ll delay the loan call so the sale can go through…”

Big Ben’s only guidance in dealing with Sarah was to remind me: “You and I both know the Reville’s ability to charm, flatter, and persuade people into performing considerably outside of their natures. So take that into account when you tot up her betrayal against your friendship.”

Remaining still, I shifted my perspective off the vista beyond the glass to the room it reflected. A fair amount of confusion flickered over Sarah’s face at the absences of chaos. Little Ben and Leo finished transferring the pipe-dream-dream-boards, avalanche of papers, and mountains of binders back to Little Ben’s old office about an hour and a half ago – just in time for our first meeting, with Nathaniel.

“Why did you move everything? And where did….” Swiveling her head down the length of the conference table, it didn’t take but a moment for her gaze to work its way over to the desk – and find me standing behind it.

In the split second it took me to turn towards her, she’d jettisoned the shock from her visage and exchanged it for mild curiosity. 

“Hey, Morticia..umm..what are you doing here? We’re getting ready for an important meeting…”

“…and now that you’re here, it can start.” Stepping over to the Proprietor’s desk, I pulled out the captain’s chair and took a seat – then motioned her towards the visitor’s. 

An odd hollow sensation filled my middle as she drew closer, and I realized moonlight flattered her features far more than the fluorescents of the office did. Dark smudges that concealer failed to hide lay beneath her eyes, her suit looked at least two sizes too large for her frame, and her hair appeared positively dull.

Resting her hands on the backs of the twin chairs, Sarah met my gaze across the wide desk. “What are you talking about?”

Leaning forward, I laced my fingers together and rested them atop the blotter. “For starters? We’re not selling to the City Council.”

Sarah stood her ground, despite visibly paling at the pleasantly delivered news. “That’s not your decision to make.”

“Your right, it’s not.” Sarah’s congratulatory smile lasted only a second before I wiped it from her face. “Big Ben made the call last night, dissolved the Board this morning, and rejected the City’s offer about a half-hour ago.”

Licking her lips, Sarah tried hard to contain her reaction to the unraveling of her and Josie’s designs on Nevermore. After giving her a few more heartbeats to process the news, I gestured towards the visitor’s chair again. “Why don’t you sit down, Sarah.”

Accepting my invitation, she perched on the edge of the seat and started absently plucking invisible bits of fluff off her pants. “When did Big Ben get back?…”

My Silver City Operative, Tavi will be chuffed when I tell her her efforts in papering Silver City with three-by-five cards worked. Once Big Ben finally spotted one, on a Swap-or-Sale cork-board in out of the way bait shop, he realized they were everywhere. Then for reasons I’m still not entirely clear on, due to the late hour and some excellent rum, rather than calling the listed number Big Ben caught a red-eye home.

Not that Sarah needs those details. 

“…He made you Caretaker again, I assume…”  

A small smile flared to life on my lips at hearing my title and I united in a sentence again – then died when I looked Sarah in the eye. “Yes, I am. And as Nevermore’s Caretaker, I need you to tell me where you stashed the copies of the Conventions you stole from Ira, Lottie, Big Ben, and I.

Nostrils flaring, her leg started bouncing at speed. “I don’t know what you’re talking….”

Fed up with her, Josie, and their machinations, I stopped her mid-denial with an inflexible tone. “Just don’t. I know you held onto the letter making Little Ben Provisional Proprietor for months. I know how Josie bribed Nathaniel. I know how you both set Little Ben up. So please don’t waste time with denials.”

2.63 A Rum Do…

2.63 a Rum do

(Okay, so Big Ben and Bill both helped Nevermore – but I’m still tempted to tell them to take a long walk off a short pier!)

Puffed up and ruffled, a red-faced Little Ben shot up from his chair. Unfortunately, because he was sitting between Big Ben and me, he was hemmed in. Rotating in the postage-stamp-sized gap between our knees, Little Ben turned towards the grate and chucked a hunk of wood into the fire – sending sparks and ash up the chimney and onto the hearth. After stomping the smoldering embers out, he rounded on me. 

“I’m not a sucker.”

“I agree, you’re not.” Watching him pick up his rum and slug it all in one swallow, I regretted prompting him to refill it. “However, Sarah used her years of experience and her position of trust to manipulate you. While Josie used her web of friends and her job at Western Mutual to shepherd you into the impossible choice we now have to make.”

Rubbing a hand across his face, Little Ben set his empty glass on the mantle and segued slightly off-topic. “Mr. Ikeda didn’t change his mind?”

Sighing, I shook my head. “No….” Before I could elaborate or broach the subject of sacrificing Sunny Valley Farm, thus piling worse news on top of bad, the low report of a cork being removed from a bottle broke into our strained conversation. Reminding us of the third person sitting in the half-moon before the fire.

“I’m assuming you two are talking about the loan call?” Pausing for a second, to glance between us, Big Ben returned to tilting the bottle over his glass at our nods. “Bill rescinded it this afternoon.”

Sinking unceremoniously onto the hearth, Little Ben’s eyes were more than a little moist at the news. “I..I..I…thank…” The rest of Little Ben’s sputtering remarks were drowned as the ire I banked earlier boiled over – again.

“What the fork man, were you waiting for the perfect dramatic moment to tell us?” Skewering Big Ben, who looked neither sheepish nor apologetic, to his chair with my patented schoolmarm look. (Which unfortunately isn’t very potent since I’ve never stepped foot in a classroom to teach. Though it has been known to stop rambunctious toddlers in their tracks.) 

I finished off my brief tirade strong…kinda.

“Phhhffwwiff….Bill!” 

Thru narrow eyes, I thought I detected a small smile decorating Big Ben’s face, but the rim of his rum glass obscured too much of his mouth to be sure, and by the time he lowered it again there wasn’t a trace of amusement to be found on his countenance. So I let it slide. (Plus, vacillating between so many emotions over such a short time, the rum and lack of sleep, was wearing me out.)

“Bill Ikeda and I’ve known each other for years, he called me right after you left with the news.”

“He knew before I left his house Nevermore was safe?”

At my not so quiet grumbling, Big Ben did crack a smile. “How carefully did you read those deeds and leases from my safe?” 

Starting to seething a bit, I shrugged. “Mr. John Dupree had gone home by the time Beatrice and Ira figured out what they were looking at, so we did the best we could….” 

“Bill couldn’t speak to you about Western Mutual’s lease because your name isn’t on it. He did try to give you a hint…” Reading Little Ben’s apologetic look, he shot my way correctly (he’d pushed me into going Mr. Ikeda’s alone, afraid he’d mess up the meeting), Big Ben continued. “…It wouldn’t have mattered if you’d gone with her Junior. The leases you found aren’t part of Nevermore’s assets. They’re mine alone.”  

Understanding finally dawning, my churning downgraded to a simmer. “…And Mr. Ikeda couldn’t tell me he rescinded the loan call because my name wasn’t on the papers. But why did he do it? Not that I’m complaining mind you…And, better question, how the fork did he call you? All I’ve been getting, for months now, is that stupid out of service recording.” 

“He has faith in Nevermore, he used his phone, and I replace my cell this morning. Oh, and he wanted me to remind you, you forgot your cake carrier at his house….But back to the topic at hand…” Blinking at Big Ben, I tried to follow the conversational u-turn, at my wide-eyed frown, he gave me a hint. “…The con?”

“Oh, yeah, that.” Holding out my glass for another splash of rum, I tried to refocus (fully aware the alcohol wouldn’t help – but needing a moment). “I’m sorry, Ben, parts of this are going to sound harsh…”

Rolling his shoulders, Little Ben gave me an unhappy smile. “Don’t worry about it, just pretend I’m a fly on the wall.”

Cracking my neck, I started with clearing up a curious element before plunging directly into the heart of the racket run on him. “Ben, did you know the Provisional Proprietor isn’t allowed to sit on the Board of Managers?”

Shrugging, Little Ben dropped his hands helplessly onto his knees. “No, but Nathaniel never said anything about it, so I figured it was fine.” 

Leaning forward, Big Ben, tilted his head. “Why didn’t you consult the Conventions? Like I asked you to…”

“I tried, but I couldn’t figure out where your copy was.” Holding up my hand, I forestalled the rhubarb brewing between the two. “And that was their first move, creating a vacuum of knowledge among the members of the Board.”

“What was the second?”

“Bribery.” 

It took longer than I liked, but I finally figured out their game.

The whole con rested on Sarah’s ability to control the Board of Managers, which meant they needed a guaranteed majority, so their first order of business was refashioning it to suit their purposes. Josie’s talent for spotting avarice in others didn’t fail her in this quest, and neither did Nathaniel. By arranging for Nathaniel’s wife to receive that prestigious grant, Josie bought Nathaniel’s vote. They also purchased his silence, which allowed them to install you as a part of the Board and divide me from Nevermore. 

Then Sarah convinced you to give Ira a paper promotion to prevent him from grounding your ambitions – as they needed your dreams for Nevermore to flow forth unchecked. 

The for-sale-sign planted on the edge of the MacGregor’s farm just after Sarah gave you Big Ben’s letter proved serendipitous. By persuading you to pay cash, they – in one fell swoop – drained a fair chunk of Nevermore’s savings. Once you started working on the new Sunny Valley Farm expansion, I’m assuming Sarah steered you towards renovating Nevermore proper. Already in for a penny, you applied for the loan. 

Unfortunately, because you’re a big picture person and trusted Sarah – you didn’t see her coaxing you into overextending Nevermore and into conflict with the Naturalists and the Historical Society.

This is where Josie began piling on the pressure. 

First, she used, asked, bribed members inside the Rye’s Rose Club and the University’s Herbarium & Botanical Gardens to condemn your plans to rip out the woodlands. Then she cajoled, blackmailed, sweet-talked members of KARB and ‘Rise and Shine Rye’ to report the story – and due to their constant coverage, events started to snowball. 

Once the protests reached critical mass – Josie brought the crisis to a crescendo by using her position at Western Regional to call the loan immediately due. Whereupon Josie’s father Lucas, Chief Councilman of Rye, swooped in with a proposal, and because Sarah controls the Board, the sale to the city was a sure thing.

I’ve no clue what Sarah gets from all of this, but Josie’s motives are clear, it shows Lucas her political chops by doing to one thing he’s never managed – carve up Nevermore. 

Feeling weary, I watched Big Ben nod in understanding, and a ruddy flush creep-up Little Ben’s neck and across his face. “Like I said, there’s a lot I still don’t know, but I’m fairly certain these are the hits.”

With a sly light in his eye, Big Ben leaned towards me. “Okay, so what do you want to do about it?”

2.62 Bing! Bang! Zoom! To the Moon…

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(Breathing fire and spitting glass – that’s how I felt seeing him after so long!)

A booming, rolling velvety laugh crashed into my furious roar in the middle of the room. “Well, that puts me in my place, doesn’t it.” Still chuckling, Big Ben wiped his eyes with a square of linen he extracted from his back pocket before beckoning me forward again.

Refusing to let his good humor (as well as my own relief at seeing him hail, whole and inside Nevermore) melt my temper, my sneakers remained rooted in place. “I’ve got a fair bit more for you, you jerk. Where the hell have you been? Why didn’t you call me? I’ve been worried sick…..”

Holding both palms in the air in surrender, Big Ben took a step back. “I’m sorry Kiddo, I really am, I didn’t mean to stay away so long.” Glancing at his son, who stood in a miserable silence next to him, the creases in Big Ben’s face grew deeper. Looking every bit as old as his seventy-eight years, Big Ben folded himself into one of the wingbacks set in front of the fire and motioned me towards its’ mate. “Please, sit.”

Still feeling more than a little mutinous, I eschewed the proffered chair, choosing to let the blazing fire in the hearth warm the backs of my legs instead. 

“Junior, why don’t you get us a bucket of ice, a bottle of rum, and three glasses from the kitchen. I need a second alone with Phoebe.” Looking more than happy to escape, Little Ben silently did as he was bid, hustling rapidly out of the room. Following his progeny’s hasty exit, Big Ben transferred his gaze up to mine – and cut the legs out from under my next tirade. “I apologize for not calling you, I wanted to….doesn’t matter now.” Waving aside his own thoughts, he regrouped and moved on. “What does matter is I owe you many explanations and a much better apology, which I’m planning on providing. But first, we need to talk about the right mess Junior’s made of Nevermore…”

“Ice cube trays are empty.” Glasses in one hand and a stout bottle in the other Little Ben traipsed back into the room. “I offered Pop my resignation right before tore in here.”

Recoiling at the unexpected humility from Little Ben, I banked my ire. 

Dropping into the high-backed leather chair across from Big Ben, I silently reveled in the light scorching my skin received from the hot fabric. “You didn’t accept it, did you?” Taking the offered empty glass from Little Ben, I ignored the light flickering off the gilt-edged Halloween illustration in favor of watching his dad. Who studied me shrewdly in return, before cracking a sly smile and the bottle open. “After what he’s told me about the state of things, is there a reason why I shouldn’t?”

Unable to repress the sigh that started somewhere around my knees, I held out my glass for a splash of rum and waited for Little Ben to finish pulling up a chair. “There’s more than enough blame for everyone to shoulder their fair share…” After giving Big Ben a hard stare, I shifted it onto the fire in the grate. “…but Ben’s portion needs to be distributed among a few more people.”

“I don’t understand.” Feeling Little Ben tense next to me, I gave him a small, sad smile.

“Tell me, who’s idea was it to lay me off?”

Settling into his chair, Little Ben considered my question for a moment before holding his glass out towards his dad. “After Sarah gave me Pop’s letter promoting me to Provisional Proprietor, she took me out for a celebratory beer, and we got to talking. I kinda moaned about you being on the Board of Managers, because I thought you’d stifle all my good ideas…” Hunching his shoulders, Little Ben skirted past the rest of his past-self’s less than sterling thoughts on my disposition. “…then Sarah said something weird because I thought you guys were tight, she kind of suggested you couldn’t smother any idea of mine if I appointed someone else Caretaker.”

Swirling the dark liquid in his glass, Big Ben unexpectedly focused on a different portion of his son’s story. “Why did Sarah give you the letter?” 

Frowning slightly, Little Ben followed it up with a shrug. “Leo was out on vacation, and his fill-in accidentally put it in her box.”

“Did she open it, before you did Junior?”

“Yeah, she wasn’t paying attention when she was going thru her mail and accidentally opened it. She ran it up to me right after she figured out her mistake….Why are you looking at me like that, Morticia?”

Snapping my jaw closed with an audible click, I took a quick slug of my drink. “Big Ben, when did you send the letter?”

“Last day of June.” 

Eyebrows drawn together and confusion plain on his face, Little Ben countered his father. “You must be mistaken, I didn’t get the letter until September.”

Closing my eyes, I fit this piece of the puzzle in place, and finally saw the forest for the trees. “Don’t worry Ben, you’re both right.” Opening them back up, I rotated my head on my shoulders and looked Little Ben in the eye. “You’re going to want to refill your glass before I start because there’s no way I can sugarcoat this for you…” Watching father and son exchange identically uneasy looks, they both followed my advice and topped off their tumblers. “At some point, between when Big Ben sent his letter, and you received it – Sarah fell in with Josie Reville. Together they laid out a con – to take advantage of both your dad’s absence and your zeal, to break Nevermore apart.”

“Phoebe….” Swiveling my head, I watched (with some fascination) the knuckles of Big Ben’s hand, holding the glass of golden liquid, turned white. “…how sure of this, are you sure?”

“I don’t know all the whys and wherefores, but I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the broad strokes.” 

2.61 …Going Nowhere…

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Resting an elbow against the driver side door, I absently twisted a lock of hair around my finger, pointedly ignoring the phone that accidentally on purpose now rested underneath my pack on the passenger’s seat. The five missed calls from Little Ben, failed video chat with Leo, and the single text from Beatrice lurking next to me could go unacknowledged for a few minutes more. 

We knew approaching him was a long shot, but not a single one of us ever imagined a scenario where Mr. Ikeda refused to hear me out. For fork’s sake, Leo and I managed not only to get inside the sit-in last night (which was no mean feat in and of itself), we negotiated an end to it. Both the Naturalists and the Historical Society signed new leases, promised to get the picketers from their sister organizations to go home this afternoon, and issued a favorable press release. 

I mean…it took the six of us over fourteen hours to accomplish this coup, but we did, and Mr. Ikeda didn’t want to hear it? I…I…I managed to stammer out a ‘thank-you for your time’ thru a plastered on plastic smile before fleeing the scene for the comforting confines of the Princess sitting on the curb outside his house…

…I just couldn’t bring myself to start her up. Because there isn’t enough time to fashion a door number four before tomorrow morning’s deadline…

Going to the bank branch is a non-starter. If their CFO won’t listen there’s little chance they will……We are not selling to the Rye City Council, even if our refusal means cutting off our noses despite our faces. Watching the workmen wrench all the headstones from the ground and build a ballpark over the old bones…I can’t even….The Residents…….Maybe we can get an extension to keep Nevermore off the butcher’s block? 

It would give Little Ben, and I time to get a better handle on the contents of his father’s safe. I’m sure not every piece of property we discovered last night is rented out at the moment. Perhaps we could make enough money from selling one or two of those lots to make up the shortfall? Or, for that matter, we could satisfy the bank with Sunny Valley Farm – then we wouldn’t need to negotiate uncharted waters of these heretofore unknown Nevermorian assets. The majority of Little Ben’s plans got sent to the scrap heap yesterday, without even a whimper from him, what’s one more? 

Leaning my head against the rest, feeling rotten at the thought, I cast about for another option…. Unfortunately, the baying of the rowdy three cut my brown study short. 

Unable to bear the thought of being invited on a walk with Mr. Ikeda and his horde of hounds (or alternatively being ignored by all of them), I finally slotted the key into the Princess’s ignition. Pulling away from the curb, I drove down the street without any definite destination in mind. 

I continued driving to Nowhere (man what a great name for a bookshop) until the winter sun started sinking in the sky. In the murkiness of twilight, sitting at a stoplight, I finally realized the Princess’s tires had, in a meandering serpentine kind of way, been steadily aiming me at Nevermore rather than Nowhere. Understanding that putting off bad news wasn’t actually helping anyone – I took the shortest route to the main gates.

Creeping past Little Ben’s cottage, annoyance at the man begun to balloon when the dark windowpanes failed to show the barest flicker of an incandescent lightbulb. He’d promised, on a stack of bibles (though only figuratively), last night/this morning to stay put until I swung by to tell him how the meeting went. 

(The fact that said meeting occurred several hours in the past and I’d willfully ignored my phone since – didn’t hinder my growing ire a whit.) 

Hitting the brakes, I leaned sideways and hunted for my cell. Finally freeing it, one glance at the glowing screen lanced the bubble of irritation inside me. I’d missed no less than twenty-two texts and thirteen calls from Little Ben over the last couple of hours. Mentally kicking myself for my thoughtlessness, I opened my messages. Scrolling past the first few variants on ‘how did it go,’ I glommed onto the next relevant note; ‘Guessing it didn’t go great Heading to Pop’s to look at more papers.’ 

Figuring I’d see him soon enough, I left the rest of his communiques unread/unplayed.

Wending my way thru Nevermore to Big Ben’s house, I practiced my apology to Little Ben for going AWOL. Then tried to find the words to tell him we’ll probably need to forfeit Sunny Valley Farm.

Rounding the last bend, it didn’t take the deductive powers of Nancy Drew to figure out Little Ben was still inside the house. Even if his orange hybrid hadn’t been in the drive, and it was, every window from the attic to the cellar was streaked with light. Pulling the Princess in behind Little Ben’s car, I grabbed my pack off the passenger seat and jogged to the front door where, unlike earlier today, my knocks went entirely unheeded. 

Unwilling to cool my heels on the front porch, I tried the knob – which turned in my hand. Letting myself in, I stood at the base of the stairs in the foyer and did my best impression of Aunt Pearl calling my cousins and I (as kids) to supper from the front porch of our house.

“Ben?! It’s Morticia, where are you?”

“…Back. Here!…” 

The muffled voice, coming from somewhere in the rear of the house, set my feet in motion. It also, and unsurprisingly, grew louder as I drew closer to its source…it also grew deeper? Pausing, I listened to a familiar cadence creep down the hall…a distinctive baritone I hadn’t heard in nearly two years was clearly telling someone off…..Using the ticked-off bellowing as a beacon, I took off in a headlong run down the hall. Ignoring the pricking of my toes, my heart’s not so subtle attempt to beat itself free of its cage and the fact my breath sounded akin to a malfunctioning whistle on a boiling tea kettle – I galloped forward like Hades himself was on my heels. Hurtling into the room seconds later, arms akimbo with helter-skelter hair, I could only blink at its occupants.

The ironed haired gentleman, standing with his back to the flaming fireplace, broke off from bawling out his son. Chuckling at my wild-eyed entrance, he held his arms wide and gave me a wonderfully warm smile.

“Hey, Kiddo, I’m glad to see you….”

Bent at the waist, my lungs rapidly re-oxygenating my blood thru swift, shallow gulps of air, Big Ben’s words buzzed like so many bees in my ears……head…….chest……until their buzzing finally shook loose a few choice ones of my own….

“WHERE THE FORK HAVE YOU BEEN YOU INCONSIDERATE ASH-HOLE!”

2.60 Tea For Two

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Mr. Ikeda regarded me steadily for a full minute before breaking the silence.

“Would you like ginger lemon or brown rice?” 

Jumping slightly at the sound of his voice, my eyes flew up to meet Mr. Ikeda’s. “Um…”

“Tea, would you like ginger lemon or brown rice?”

“Ginger lemon?”

“Good choice.” Pulling a tin out from under his bench, he set it atop with a soft clink. “Now, if you’ll make the hot beverages, I’ll grab some plates and forks for the cake.”

Dizzy at the turn of events, I concentrated on not dribbling hot water onto Mr. Ikeda’s workbench as I rehydrated bits of ginger root, lemon peel, and tea leaves. By the time he rejoined me, I’d already removed the bags from two perfectly steeped mugs of tea, the cover from the cake, and been able to study his HO scale replica in some detail.

Distracted from the discrepancy I’d discovered in the pocket-sized version of Rye, I returned Mr. Ikeda’s genial smile with a wane one of my own when he reentered the room. “Sorry to make you wait, it took longer to figure out where my wife stored the cake knife and server than I’d thought it would. Well, that and I fed the disreputable three an early lunch so we could enjoy our treat…” He let out a low whistle as he looked over the intricate icing, strategically applied powdered sugar and sugar work. “…in peace. That looks too lovely to eat.”

“Thank-you. I wish I could say it’s nothing, but that would be a lie, it took forever to frost.”

Picking the base of the cake carrier up, Mr. Ikeda slowly turned in his hands, taking in the details of the house. “This really is splendid.”

“Well, here’s to hoping it tastes half as good as it looks, one never knows for sure.”

Setting the cake back onto the bench, I declined his silent invitation to perform the honors, so he took up the knife and shaved off two equal measures of gingerbread. Handing me one, Mr. Ikeda set his piece next to his mug of (now) tepid tea and retook his seat. Following his lead, I sat across from him as before. Though I left my plate of cake untouched, as the inscrutability of his expression caused grasshoppers to ricochet uncomfortably about my insides. 

“So tell me, have you decided to terminate just Western Mutual’s lease, or are planning to cancel others as well?”

Taking a deep breath, I answered on the exhale. “We need to terminate all of them. It’s the only way to obtain enough square footage to satisfy the conditions of the loan.”

Nodding to himself for a moment, he gave me an affable but shrewd look. “But you came to me first, hoping I’d rescind the loan call. Correct?”

Firming up my shoulders, I looked the Chief Financial Officer for Western Regional bank squarely in the eye. “I can’t lie, it’s exactly what I’d hoped.”

Initially, Little Ben and I planned to go on bended knee to the bank branch he applied for the loan at – but then Beatrice and Ira found a Hail Mary. 

Stashed in Big Ben’s safe were deeds, with accompanying leases, for various pieces of real estate around Rye. Sifting through the boggling number of rental agreements, which included some of my favorite spots, dives, and joints – we discovered one for the headquarters of Western Regional Bank, signed by their CFO. We decided to appeal to Mr. Ikeda directly, hoping he’d listen and ignore the grand opportunity to acquire the land lying underneath his business’s main building.

Washing down his last bite with a sip of tea, he set aside his empty plate and fork. “I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, I will raise this issue with the appropriate parties tomorrow morning….”

Wetting my lips with a sip of tea, in hopes of banishing my sudden bout of cottonmouth, I tried to clarify his words. “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure what that means exactly.”

Peering over the top rim of his glasses, Mr. Ikeda gave me a sympathetic smile. “It means you are more than welcome to stay and help me build a new house form my miniature, but our discussion on the loan and the bank’s lease are finished.”

A wave of panic washed over me. 

Flipping open my folder, I started scrounging thru the documents. “Please, Mr. Ikeda, hear me out. I’ve nullified all the factors listed in the loan call….” (And let me tell you that was a job of work.) Holding out two sheets of paper, I waited for Mr. Ikeda to take them. When he gave me another kind smile, I returned them to the folder sitting in my lap and summed them up at a pell-mell pace. “….At noon today, the Historical Society and Naturalists issued a press release formally ending their protests…”

Cutting in, as my lungs demanded air, the unflappable Mr. Ikeda stuck to his guns. “Exemplary work Ms. Arden, truly. But nothing you say will change my mind.”

In response to my rising frustration, my neurons started firing unhelpful instructions to my extremities, leading to a faint tremor in my left hand and a frantic bounce in my right knee. “We’ve also sent letters to KARB and ‘Rise and Shine Rye’ asking them to post corrections and clarifications for the errors made in their coverage of Nevermore’s troubles. Which will help rehabilitate Nevermore’s reputation in Rye. Plus, we’re working on a deal to supply a local food bank in Rye with fresh produce, a new green initiative, and low-cost art spaces…”

Using a fork full of gingerbread from his second slice to emphasize his points, Mr. Ikeda skillfully removed the wind from my sails. 

“Ms. Arden, have you ever heard the term, Mutuality of Obligation?”

“No…” 

“Are you an expert in contract law or possess a degree in finance?”

Worried any words issued from my mouth at this moment would reflect only my emotions – I shook my head no in response.

“Then, this topic is closed. Now, if you’d like to stay, I’d be more than happy to teach you the right way to weather a post office.”

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