2.48.c Friends & Foes

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(I tried to get pics of the rest of the food – but it went so fast I only managed to get pics of the tuna noodle casserole!)

Opening the front door, I found Ira and Leo standing on the welcome mat, holding sweet-smelling bundles.

Ira (chagrined smile decorating his face): “Sorry we’re late, but the Missus wanted to send along a casserole, and it took longer to finish baking than she’d anticipated….”

Me (relieving him of the cloth-covered dish): “Ira, anything your wife cooks is more than worth the wait. Come on in.”

Leo: “Hey boss, I brought cupcakes…”

Me (my stomach fluttered in response to his words – Leo’s knitting needles are talented, but his kitchen skills are infamous): “Did you make them yourself?”

Leo (lips twitching): “A dozen of the Alter’s finest.”

Me (quietly releasing the breath I was holding): “If you’d like to hang up your coats on a hook, we’re back in the kitchen.”

Leo (eyebrows rising in surprise): “We?”

Me: “I needed help. Don’t worry, I kept it in the family.”

The next few minutes were taken up with hellos and how-do-you-do’s as everyone introduced and/or reacquainted themselves with each other over wings, dumplings, and a scoop or two of casserole. (Which if eaten individually – was wonderful, but taken together? Tuna-and-noodle casserole, garlic-soy-sauce wings, and maraschino cherry & pumpkin seed cupcakes did not exactly meld well on one’s pallet. Despite that small hiccup, we still managed to do the dishes justice.)

Robbie (hand suspended over my phone): “You want to start the tape from the beginning?”

Ira (tilting his head at me): “Tape?”

Me (leaning back in my chair): “This last Monday, Josie Reville ordered a ride thru FLYT, from me specifically, and I sort of recorded our entire trip on my phone.”

Leo (laughing): “Sort of?”

Me (lips twitching): “Not the critical take away here, what is, is our conversation.”

Since we weren’t too far into the recording, we agreed to start over. When we reached the audio gap, where Robbie, Beatrice, and I left off earlier, I filled them in on the action occurring outside the range of my phone’s microphone. Until the recording resumed spitting out something more interesting than me shifting in my seat or the occasional blare of a car horn. 

(I did think about sticking my phone out the window, but I judged that a bit overly keen.)

Drycleaning in one hand and phone in the other, Josie’s forward progress towards the Princess abruptly ended a yard from her front bumper. At which point, Josie attempted to fuse her cellphone to her skull, by simultaneously pivoting and tilting so her entire bodyweight appeared to rest against her right ear – and the phone firmly pressed against it.

My spidey senses (augmented by the naked vexation adorning her face and underscored by a light amount of finger-pointing) told me Josie’s trenchant heart-to-heart wasn’t going well. 

Losing interest in Josie’s unusual but not unprecedented outburst of temper, my attention wandered onto her handful of long shimmering frocks. Frocks that rapidly bewitched the eye with their twinkling dance. Ignoring the fact the glittering display owed its origins to passing headlights and Josie’s intermittent finger jabbing, I continued to enjoy their sparkle and shine. So much so it took a minute for me to realize Josie had shifted her gaze off the ground, thru the windscreen and onto me.

Figuring this was my cue, I cracked open my door to relieve Josie of the hangers cramping her efforts at a more emphatic style of gesticulation. No sooner had I set foot on the pavement, Josie made me aware of my misread cue.

“I’ll let you know when you’re needed.” 

Allowing Josie’s autocratic tone to roll off my back, I stiffly dipped my chin and retook my seat. Deciding to adjust my focus off Josie and her enthralling dry cleaning, I pulled a narrow notebook out from under my seat. 

Pointedly keeping my eyes off of the glimmering gowns, I flipped to the correct to-do list and sent my pencil whooshing across the page. Crossing off the names of the novelties I’d placed on layaway at the Toy Shop this afternoon felt satisfying and unexpectedly nostalgic. The first time I ever took my life into my own hands was participating in a holiday toy craze. Not only did I drive two states over and nearly ended up engaging in fisticuffs with a desperate mum – the Princess received her first dent! 

All so I could secure a Tickle-Me-Elmo for a four-year-old Robbie. (Worth it.)

Scarcely had the memory of that giggling scrap of red fur finished pulling a genuine smile from me, Josie’s tight voice moving past the Princess’s front wheel-well dimmed it considerably. “What’s so hard? We made sure there were only two options…Get him on board!” 

In the midst of secreting away my notepad, Josie reached my door and hung up her phone. Apparently concerned I’d missed her arrival, she started tapping her acrylic nail against my half-opened window – thus extinguishing the remnants of my cheery reverie.

“Are you going to help me with this? Or do I need to do this myself as well?”

Plastering on a smile that probably looked as sincere as it felt, I once again exited the Princess and found myself immediately in possession of Josie’s fancy-pants laundry. Due to her shoving it into my arms. Taking a deep breath of the crisp air, I closed my eyes and counted the clicks Josie’s sky-high heels made against the asphalt. I’d reached the count of twelve when the squeal of the Princess’s passenger side door opening obscured her footfalls and most everything else, except her voice.

“Whenever you’re ready.” 

The only upside to Josie slamming the door was it cut off the condescension of her words.

Leaning into the Princess, I slipped my seat forward and gingerly hung/laid the gleaming evening dresses across the backseat. After climbing behind the wheel, I engaged the engine and shifted into reverse. “Where would you like me to drop you off tonight? Back at the garage? Work? Home?”

“What?” Transferring her frown from the black screen of her phone to me.

“What’s our final destination? I need it to plan the most efficient route for your chores.” 

Neither the faint squeak my seat made as I swiveled in place to see out the rear window or the increase in engine noise as I depressed the gas pedal detracted from the unadulterated derision Josie embroidered into her answer. 

“O’Phoebe, always going the extra mile when no one asks you too.” 

2.48.b Rolling Snake-Eyes with the Universe

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(There’s gotta be a winning roll in there some where….right?)

Thank the lords above and below the recorder only picks up audio. If they ever invent a device that transcribes our thoughts…..well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be playing that recording for Beatrice and Robbie.

Not on account of the initial stabby feelings, the sight of the Brownie Stealing Bench inspired – those are thoroughly documented. (As I reassured the bevy of school counselors, Uncle and Aunt Pearl; I’d much rather my first time in police custody come from my role in The Great Hamster Heist, where I liberate a horde of high functioning furballs in order to save the world. Or on account of The Case of the Missing Corpse Flower, which presumably entails me ‘borrowing’ the noxious bloom to complete a corsage for a member of the Addams family. I’m definitely NOT going to squander my very first time clapped in irons on her.)

No, the reason why I’m thankful some smart-brained engineer hasn’t perfected a thought recorder was; no one, other than me, needed to know about the Tickle-Me-Elmo induced epiphany I had.

“Oh my, you’ve decorated for the holidays! How festive!” The subtle rustle of fabric accompanied Josie’s words as she reached up to touch the dewdrop lights I’d twisted with some silver garland and tacked up along the perimeter of the Princess’s ceiling. “Normally, I find this silver tinsel kitschy, but in here it really works.”

Robbie: “Wow, she didn’t waste any time.”

Me: “Didn’t need too. We were alone.”

“Thanks. Everyone deserves a little holiday cheer, even the Princess.” To cover my eye roll, I slotted home the ignition key and turned the engine over. “Now, where are we heading?”

“Happy Planet Dry Cleaners.” While I programmed the destination into FLYT, Josie (I can’t call her the Brownie Stealing Bench at the moment – otherwise, I’m going to slip and say it to her face) continued to swivel her head taking in her surroundings. My phone picked up the soft clink of the buckles on her handbag, tapping the buttons on her coat. “Normally I wouldn’t use FLYT, as father and I are trying to encourage the public to use mass transit, but then I remembered you worked for a ride-share. So I figured, in the spirit of the season, I’d help a former classmate earn some extra money.”

“If anyone asks, I’ll tell them the tale of your magnanimity.”

Robbie (astonished): “How on earth did you say that without laughing?”

Me: “Practice.”

What the audio didn’t convey was the narrow-eyed look Josie shot me when she thought I was concentrating on the road. 

“I just can’t get over how adorable the inside of the Piggybank is!”

Making an affirmative sounding noise in the back of my throat, I hit the turn indicator. An action that turned unwelcomely gripping as Josie emitted a sharp squeal of delight, which nearly caused the Princess’s front bumper to kiss the fire hydrant at the end of the turn. 

“You’ve collected coins in the ashtray, just like a real piggybank! Are you saving for a rainy day?”

“Nope, a pony.” I’d aimed for a bland tone, but owing to the near-miss, my answer needed to navigate thru clenched teeth. Uninterested in hearing her follow-up snark, I moved our conversation onto safer ground. “Do you need to stop anywhere else after the cleaners?”

Josie’s tittering laughter, tinged with a hint of mockery, lost most of its bite in the playback. As the sustained jingling, rattling, and rifling during her deep dive into the depths of her massive purse muffled the worst of it. The search also kept her entertained until I pulled the Princess between the white lines before the doors of the Happy Planet Cleaners. Whereupon, she removed a wade of small crinkly slips, extracted a yellow call tag from amongst them, and thrust the remaining stack my way. “Can you be a doll and plug these addresses into FLYT for me? I’ll only be a minute.” Without waiting for an affirmative, she got out of the Princess.

Deciding this battle wasn’t worth the fight, I started adding stops in for cobbler, seamstress, pharmacist, post office, bookshop, and department store. “Oh goody, we going to spend the entire evening together…” 

Robbie: “So this is when you figured out your phone was still recording?”

Me: “Yup. This was also when the Brownie Stealing Bench walked out of the cleaners looking ready to spit nails at whoever was on the other end of her phone. So I let the recording go.”

Beatrice: “Why?”

Me: “The sixteen-year-old still living inside me wanted to prove I wasn’t ‘thin-skinned.’”

Robbie: “Prove to who?”

Me (shrugging): “The memories of school councilors, my teachers, her sycophants, her.”

Beatrice (carefully): “I get that. But how did you know her composure would crack? From how you’ve described Josie and what I’ve heard, she’s pretty controlled.”

Me: “Oh, she is. Right up until something doesn’t go her way, and that phone call definitely wasn’t.”

Beatrice’s next and no doubt germane query was put on the back burner due to the radda-tap-tap of a knuckle striking our apartment’s front door.

2.48.a Monday, Monday Can’t Trust That Day…

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(Technically this is the Diner on the Corner’s biscuit and gravy spread – I forgot to take a pic of the chipped beef before I ate it!)

“It was a dark and stormy night.”

Beatrice (arching an eyebrow): “Was it, though?”

Robbie (brow furrowed): “Where? It’s been clear as a bell at the house for over a week. Not that I’ve been outside much…”

Me: “I’m trying to set a mood.”

Watching them roll their eyes in unison, I hastily moved on.

Me: “Okay, it wasn’t stormy per se, but it was dark.”

“My last arranged fare of the day, Mrs. Kim, called it quits on her Christmas shopping thirty minutes early…”

Robbie: “Shirt. Have you started making your presents for the gift exchange yet?”

Me: “Yes. I’m assuming you haven’t?”

Robbie (shifting in his seat): “Do you think sticking googly-eyes on condiments counts as homemade?”

Me (suppressing a grin): “If you have to ask….”

Robbie: “Shirt.”

Beatrice (tipping her cup of earl grey my way): “Anyways…”

“Mrs. Kim’s early night meant I could eat a warm meal before my second shift started. I’d just polished off my plate of chipped beef on toast with the works when the lights flickered crazily as my FLYT ap popped.”

Beatrice (her tone dry as dust): “Warning our heroine, she should’ve stayed at home…”

Robbie: “Who has S.O.S. on their menu anymore?”

Me (responding in reverse order): “The Diner on the Corner had it as their Throwback Monday Special-of-the-Day and I take it you’re looking for less extravagant descriptions?”

Beatrice: “They do drape your story in a certain amount of distortion.”

Me: “Actually, they won’t.”

Robbie: “Really? How?”

Pulling my phone out of my back pocket, I placed it between the serving plates on the kitchen table.

Me (sheepishly): “I recorded the entire ride.”

Robbie (incredulously): “Isn’t that against FLYT regulations?”

Me: “Yes. However, in my defense, it was an accident…though when I did remember, I didn’t bother shutting it off….”

Beatrice (eyes sparkling with suppressed laughter): “You know, Ms. Hettie will have a fit if you get fired. She likes her tenants gainfully employed…”

Me (shrugging helplessly at the end): “Seriously, it was an accident. I was recording a voice memo while I was driving. When I hit the parking lot, the FLYT prompt superseded the phone screen. When I figured out who ordered the ride, the phone was the least of my worries.”

Robbie: “Don’t keep us in suspense, who was it?”

Pulling the Princess into the ill-lit lot of Hudson Brother’s Garage, I scanned for a man befitting of the name J.R. It took a moment for a silhouette to detach itself from the inky shadows and saunter towards the passenger side door. Passing through a pool of light issuing from the office window, the shade’s profile resolved itself into a dame. 

A dame who I knew was nothing but trouble.

Me (holding up my hands under their twin glares): “Okay, okay, I’ll stop.”

Without meeting either Robbie or Beatrice’s level (and unamused) looks, I wiped the soy-garlic-glaze off my fingers, picked up my phone, plugged in my password, pressed play, and set it back amongst our dinner plates.

The strains of the Greensleeves Tango played for a second before KARB’s musical selection muted, allowing both the ambient car noises and my voice to shine through. (Entertainingly, describing the dinner we were currently eating days before we actually sat down at the kitchen table in the Lavender Lady.)

“Frozen peas, yellow pepper, water chestnuts and corn sautéed in garlic and onions for the dumpling filling. Need to get a red pepper, some bean sprouts, snow peas, julienned carrots, cilantro, and rice noodles for salad. Plus, a couple of limes, ginger, Serrano chilis and chili oil for the sauces. Need to marinate the chicken wings for at least a day….”

The soft tick of the turn indicator and an increase in rustle cloth accompanied my preoccupied voice. “Okay J.R., I’m here where are you?” Silence descended in the Princess as her wheels roll to a stop, thus allowing the phone to pick up my sharp gasp.

“Oh, holy forking hell. You’ve got to be kidding me…”

Beatrice (putting her chopsticks down): “What’s that thrumming noise? I forgot to ask before.”

Me: “My fist bouncing rapidly off the bottom of the steering wheel, I was debating whether or not to set the Princess’s tires on fire peeling out.”

Robbie: “Sssshhhhh…”

The vibrating stopped a moment before the squeaky passenger side door opened. “Phoebe! I’m so glad you’re finally here! Oh, and look, you’re wearing another charming hat. It’s not as eye-catching as the octopus, but the plastic holly does lend it a certain je ne sais quoi.” 

“I’m well within the pickup window, you…Josie.” I finished lamely, ignoring both her dig at Squiddy and my festoon chauffeur’s cap. (I’d found a small vintage fairy-cake topper and tucked it in the band of my hat – I rather liked the effect it created.)

Robbie (grinning): “You almost called her a Brownie Stealing Bench, didn’t you.”

Me (mouth twitching): “Maybe….”

Beatrice (her eyebrows puckered together): “Why did she use just her initials instead of her full name?”

Me (shrugging): “I’m guessing she knew I wouldn’t have accepted the fare otherwise.”

2.47 Happanstance or Design?

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One of the side benefits of visiting Samuel? Perusing the shelves Filbert’s Market for inspiration. Unfortunately, since I still had several hours left on my meter for today, I could only shop from the middle aisles. Even with this geographical limitation, my muse didn’t fail me, as the low sodium soy sauce featured on the aisle three end-cap provided the inspiration I was looking for. 

It had been an absolute age since I’d made garlic chicken wings. 

So after grabbing a bottle of soy, I snagged a bag of brown sugar, gochujang, a bulb of garlic, and the most massive cup of coffee the deli had to offer. I took my culinary cover for visiting Filbert’s to the front and stood in another line until my favorite checker (Bev don’t call me Beverly) handed me a receipt.

After depositing the shelf-stable ingredients in the Princess’s trunk and the coffee in the cupholder, I tootled towards the Diner On The Corner. In short order, I was pulling the Princess against the curb, just down the block from the restaurant, to wait for Mr. Fernandez’s call.

Settling in, I took a moment to take in the beauty of the bare-branched trees, then dove into my discordant to-do list. Pulling the reporter’s notebook (Uncle had given me from his personal stationery stash last night to help sort out my priorities) and the atypical copy of the Conventions out from under the driver’s seat, I propped the former against the latter and went to work.

Checking Samuel’s name off the list of Errants, I need to alert about a possible newcomer and/or threat (since it’s not always clear which category they fall under until Joseph & I vet them), felt nice. Adding an asterisk next to Eliza’s name, felt less so. She’d hit the panic button once when a flock of sparrow’s dust bath divots ‘gouged’ the ground near her Origin Point. So what stopped her from using the Relay when an Errant of indeterminate intentions approached? On the upside, when I visit Eliza, I can exchange notes with Abraham and keep up my end of our bargain.

Moving on to easier, though no less relevant notes, I jotted down a few thoughts on sides to accompany soy-glazed garlic wings. Then sketched out a relatively goof-proof plan to sneak a copy of My Neighbor Totoro into Filbert’s break-room tv for Samuel. About the time I was vacillating over the line item about me flying to New Mexico myself to find Big Ben, a flock of birds erupted from behind my seat.

Not literally, thank the gods above and below. 

Me (pressing the button of my handsfree headset hooked over my ear): “Hop 2863, do you need me to pull around the front for you, Mr. Fernandez?” 

Hesitant Voice: “Hey Morticia, it’s Sarah.”

That’ll teach me for not assigning individual ringtones to people, one more thing to add to the to-do list.

Me: “Oh, hey, Sarah. Sorry, I was expecting a call from a FLYT fare. What’s up?”

Sarah: “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were still working.”

Me (letting out a little laugh): “Pulling extra hours. The nieces and nephews handed out their Christmas lists last week, and I’m going to buy the most obnoxious toy – my cousins will kill me for getting – off each one.”

Sarah (returning my laugh): “You know payback’s a bench, right?”

Me (grin fading): “Yeah, well, I like being cool Auntie Morticia.” 

Sarah: “Wait, I thought you always got them books.”

Me (tapping my fingers on the gilt-edged tome sitting in my lap): “Those too. That’s why I’m working extra hours until Yule.”

Sarah (clearing her throat): “Speaking of which…”

Me (closing my eyes): “Hey Sarah, I know you didn’t call to talk about the niblings, but my FLYT ap just popped, and I need to pick up my fare. Can you shoot me a text? Or can I call you after my shift? I get off at nine…”

Sarah (brightly): “I’ll text you. Stay safe in the salt mines!”

Me (forcing cheer into my words): “Back at you.”

Pressing the button on my headset, I disconnected, roughly unhooked the earpiece, and threw it onto my dash. 

Okay, I lied. 

Mr. Fernandez won’t finish for at least another twenty minutes, but I couldn’t take talking to Sarah right now……Because I’d love nothing more than to take Robbie’s advice.

Closing my eyes, I imagined clearing the air over the Brace Affair with Sarah over bowls of ramen (one of her favorites). I’d listen to her side and she mine. I’d tell her I understood the difficulty of divided loyalties and the tightrope one walked in managing them. We’d have a laugh, slurp our soup, and put it behind us.

Unfortunately, my newly minted sense of suspicion supplanted this pie-in-the-sky vision with the memory of that first forking phone call. 

Opening my eyes, I stared at the rosy oval scars on the heels of my hands, that forking phone call. It fashioned and fit a lens of mistrust over my mind’s eye, modifying the meaning of every word, gesture, and deed stored in my memory of her.

Not the least of which makes me wonder if Little Ben really did rifle thru Sarah’s desk and discombobulate her paperwork. The circumstance she claimed caused her to give me the wrong date for the Woman In White’s arrival in Nevermore. (Leading me to confront a homicidal Errant entirely underprepared.) Who exactly would’ve been waiting for me if I’d shown up on the date she gave me?

Then there’s the random happenstance of her being on hand the very last time I laid either eyes or hands on my copy of the Conventions. In point of fact, she helped box up the remaining portion of my library that day – which included the aforementioned policy manual.

Coincidence or pattern?

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