Front & Center
So The Alter, my favorite caffeine pushers in all of Rye, had this poster hanging up on their front doors…not worrying at all…especially invoking baby animals and Bambi all in one pic…man I’ve gotta find Big Ben…Fast.
So The Alter, my favorite caffeine pushers in all of Rye, had this poster hanging up on their front doors…not worrying at all…especially invoking baby animals and Bambi all in one pic…man I’ve gotta find Big Ben…Fast.
Crouching back down next to the Toby, who was selflessly offering his tummy up for scritches, Wood tilted his head to continue talking to Joseph. “He’s a sweet little guy. How old is he?”
Joseph, clearly amused at Toby’s shameless behavior, stood next to Wood. “I’m not sure, Toby was full-grown when he adopted me.”
“I’ve two of my own, Bert and Ernie.”
“Do they follow you around? Toby’s my personal shadow.”
Stopping the hysterical giggle threatening to escape me by biting down on it. I watched two pivotal pieces of my life that I’d always presumed would remain poles apart make banal chitchat over another impossible thing.
If I find four more before breakfast, I’ll tie the White Queen’s record.
The stray thought stole the breath from my lungs.
Can you imagine seeing six impossible things before breakfast? My paradigms feel fractured at a mere two.
Pulling up the cuff of my coat to expose my watch face, I nearly wept when it read half-past one. It’s a brand new day that makes my next meal breakfast. I don’t care if I’m still stuffed to the gills from our moon bathing nibbles, we’re hitting The Alter for coffee and danishes.
This madness must end.
Glancing blankly up at the sound of my name, I did my best impression of Dickens. “Huh?”
Wood, placing the back of his hand against my forehead for a second, caught me up to speed. “Joseph asked if I could watch Toby while he spoke to you in private for a minute. I said it’s fine with me if it’s fine with you.”
Giving him a reassuring smile, “Yeah, sorry, it’s okay. He’s the guy I came here to talk to tonight.”
Nodding, we both watched Joseph issue Toby his marching orders, “This will take a few minutes. Please stay here with Dourwood.” At Toby’s yip of agreement, Joseph turned to me, I shot Wood a quick smile, and then he and I wordlessly headed towards the back of the Manor and out of earshot.
Sinking onto the top step, resting my elbows on my knees, I watched Wood and Toby dash amongst the rose beds having a grand old time together.
Joseph has a dog.
Clearly not the most spectacular gap in my knowledge about the man, but I found it unsettling all the same.
“So Nevermore has four-legged Residents?”
“Not Residents, Resident. Toby’s unique in Nevermore though that might change with the pet cemetery annex.”
“Any other Residents I’ve not met yet?”
Glancing over my shoulder, I saw his poker face in place. “More than one but less than twenty?”
Knowing that was the best I was going to get, I moved on. “HOW is Wood playing fetch with a Resident?”
“Just a trick, Toby learned.”
“What like rolling over?”
Chuckling at my sarcasm. “Toby knows that one as well.”
“Can other Residents perform this ‘trick’?”
Joseph shook his head. “No, just Toby.”
“Okay, then how are you doing it?”
Joseph gave me a little shrug and a maddening sphinx-like smile.
Rotating my head slowly, stretching out the tight muscles in my neck, I vacillated between wanting to flick him in the forehead and cutting loose a mammoth-sized sigh. Sensing my perturbation, he swept both unhelpful impulses aside by slipping a thick leather-bound book onto my lap.
“A copy of the Conventions as requested.”
“Are you sure?”
Joseph laughed at my disbelief.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“You realize it looks nothing like any other copy I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
Cracking the spine, I carefully leafed past the endpapers to the cursive filled first page. Sadly, the poor lighting on the porch and the slant of the handwriting made it difficult to decipher on the spot.
I have a feeling this book could benefit from an index.
“Do you think it will help Nevermore?”
“No idea, but it stands to reason if both my and Ira’s copies went walkabout there’s something salient inside. Speaking of walkabouts, Orin’s Errant….” Letting the impossible issues drop, as I’d learned a clam has looser lips than Joseph, I filled him in on Abraham’s antics, intelligence, and our plans.
His face didn’t turn grave until the protests came up.
Of course, he knew of them, they’re literally on Nevermore’s doorstep. However, he’d been unaware of the extent of unrest Little Ben’s plans had churned up in Rye. “The silver lining in all this bad press and protests is they work in our favor. Not only are they pointing out what Nevermore would lose with the demolition and deforestation, but they will also cause delays.”
Staring up at the stars, he quietly asked, “Does everything rest on finding Big Ben?”
“Not everything…Okay, everything.” Stroking the leather book sitting in my lap. “I’ll find a Plan B.”
“I know you will try Phoebe.”
(Wild Rose Manor’s rose beds during better times.)
Pausing on the Nevermore side of the Wild Rose gate, I used my set of skeleton keys to relock the lock behind us. Then, I accidentally scared the peewaddens out Wood by following Joseph’s instructions and energetically rapping my knuckles against the solid oak door.
Wood (scanning the windows and whisper shouting): “Ssshhh! You’re going to wake someone up!”
Me (grinning and stepping around him): “Relax, no one’s lived here in decades, and security only checks on the house at dusk and dawn, so we’re safe.”
Which is one of the reasons why I’d chosen to meet Joseph here instead of the Crossroads.
Though by the state of things, I’m not sure anyone but security has swung by Wild Rose Manor in some time. Several of the lightbulbs that should be burning brightly were dark, a deep drift of leaves decorated the porch, and the lawn underfoot was shaggy. However, the detail I found most shocking was the state of the rose beds. The plants were leggy, their leaves starting to sport rust spots, and every bush was crowded with spent flower heads.
What on earth’s keeping Ira from dispatching his groundskeepers to taken care of them? On the upside, the negligence should provide me some pretty good cover when Joseph gets here.
Talking to plants is a thing – right?
Crowley, from Good Omens, kept an apartment full of house-plants terrified by talking to them and occasionally mulching them. However, the pertinent point here is I’ve got a plant talking precedent. Though I’m sure, Wood will have something pithy to say about using a demon as a role model – even if deep, deep down he’s a little good…
Either way, it’s better cover than trying to convince him I’m rehearsing for an improv workshop – again.
Wood (following me up the path): “So why are we here?”
Me (stepping towards the roses near a working light): “I need to talk to a guy.”
Wood (watching me start to deadhead the roses): “A different guy than earlier?”
Me (starting to create a small brown mound of blossoms): “Yup. There you go, you gorgeous thing….”
Wood (grinning): “Thanks, I’ve started running in the mornings.”
Me (rolling my eyes): “Not you, the rose bush. Talking to them promotes growth. So, running?”
Wood (absently answering me): “Yeah, it helps me wake up in the morning….Do you hear that?”
Off in the distance, the bright bark of a dog broke the night. Dropping the last spent flower on the ground, I wiped the blade of my pocket knife on my jeans then put it away. Joining Wood on the central path between the rose beds, I started walking towards the rapidly swelling sound.
Wood: “Does Nevermore’s security guards use dogs?”
Me: “Every now and again, but they prefer shepherds or mastiffs. That’s a little dog’s voice…”
Stepping in front of Wood at the first pinprick in my toes not only saved me from explaining my watery eyes away (the current arching across my toes was brisk). It also kept Wood from witnessing my jaw hit the ground when a pint-sized blur of white fur bounded thru the lavender, ricocheted off my shins and landed on his haunches at my feet.
Me (utterly failing to pick up my jaw back up): “Toby?”
Tongue lolling out in a mischievous smile, only a small dog can manage to make charming, the little terrier jumped up, planted his front paws on my knees, and gave me a joyful yip.
Wood (walking around me): “Friend of yours?”
Hand trembling, I touched Toby’s furry head and received a friendly frisson of electricity up my arm as well as a quick lick. Bouncing back onto four paws, the little dog took a shy sniff of Wood’s ankle.
Me (feeling like I’d just downed a stiff drink too fast): “I believe his name is Toby.”
Wood, who adores all canines, crouched down and held out his hand for a sniff. Cautiously Toby inched forward until he was in nose range. Apparently liking what he sniffed, he bellied forward a few more steps. Allowing Wood to give him a quick head scratch before dancing out of reach again.
Wood (concentrating on making a new friend): “Hello Toby! What are you doing running around Nevermore all by yourself at this hour?”
Joseph (following the path around the lavender): “Apparently, he’s trying to alert everyone to our presence. Good-evening Phoebe.”
Upon hearing Joseph’s voice, Toby raced over, completed one tight circuit around his legs, then dashed back to flirt with Wood. However, instead of playing Toby’s game Wood stood up, waited a beat for me to perform introductions before realizing none were forthcoming, and held a hand out to Joseph.
Who. Took. It.
Wood: “Dourwood Utley, nice to meet you.”
Joseph (a breath of hesitation between first and last name): “Joseph Marx, nice to meet you as well.”
Doing my best impression of a goldfish, I stared at the spot where the two men just clasped hands, gobsmacked.
Wood and I watched, from the Princess’s cozy confines, a patrol car cruise slowly past us. Fighting the instinct to hunker down, I sucked on my slightly scorched index finger while fastening my seatbelt with the other. Much to our mutual relief, the cruiser turned the corner, crawl by the park, then thankfully roll out sight.
The appearance of the police at the site of our Moon Bathing soiree, after the Beagle and his Human, tootled past us on one last jaunt around the block, is probably pure coincidence. Undoubtedly the one-man watch missed the eerie flickering blue flames of the Snapdragon dish…
…that could possibly be seen from space due to an inadvertently heavy-handed pour from the bottle of apple brandy. (The fact we were laughing like an asylum of loons while popping bits of fire into our mouths – I’m sure escaped his notice as well.)
Pondering the question, should we count this as a close shave with the boys in blue, I turned towards the Princess’s passenger seat for a second opinion. Only to find an unsmiling Wood staring at the space up the street Sarah’s car had occupied up until a few minutes ago.
Me (using a hankie to wipe the drool off my sore finger): “You think Sarah’s doing okay?”
Wood: “Can you drive past the park for me? Slowly?”
Me (incredulous and yet still turning the engine over): “You want me to follow the cop car?”
Wood: “I’ll explain in a minute.”
Shrugging, I depressed the handbrake, pulled the Princess into non-existent traffic, and followed the police car’s line around the corner. Instead of taking one last gander at the scene of our misdemeanor, Wood stared intently at the opposite side of the street then lapsed into a pensive silence.
Concentrating on the distant tail lights, trying to divine which way the officer would turn, I let Wood follow his train of thought in peace. I even refrained from letting out a whoop of delight when the police cruiser decided to turn the opposite direction of Nevermore.
Wood (breaking his own silence): “This isn’t the way home.”
Me: “We’ve one more stop to make.”
Wood (falling back into his thoughts): “Okay.”
Me (glancing over): “You going to tell me what’s going on, or do I need to start pulling teeth?”
Wood (frowning): “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea why Sarah was acting so weird.”
Wood (slowly): “A couple of minutes after you stopped shouting in the gazebo and I said goodnight to Laney, the front door of that big brick house across the way opened. All I could see were silhouettes, so I started playing ‘What Are They Saying?’ in my head.”
Me (looking for a parking spot): “Always fun.”
Wood (nodding): “Eventually, without any hugs, kisses, or handshakes, one outline went back inside, and the other walked towards the street.”
Me (carefully pulling the Princess between two huge SUVs): “An inevitable outcome at a front door.”
Wood (flicking my leg for interrupting again): “I lost interest in the scene until I heard a woman’s voice call out, ‘Sarah! Wait!’. That’s when I saw our Sarah standing under a street lamp across the way, a second later another woman jogged up and handed her something.”
Me (shutting down the Princess’s engine): “Okay…”
Wood: “Morticia, I’m seventy-five percent certain the other woman was Josie Reville.”
Me (jaw involuntarily dropping): “You’re kidding. The Brownie Stealing Bench? Did you know they knew each other?”
Wood (half laughing at the end of his sentence): “No, I didn’t, but if Sarah were hanging out with Josie tonight, it would explain why she was so weird at first. The bad blood between you two is NOT a secret.”
Silently my mind whirred, churning out rational reasons why Sarah might intentionally spend time in The Brownie Stealing Bench’s company. Unfortunately, since I couldn’t fathom spending more than two minutes together with her, my imagination quickly went into overdrive. Spinning out one improbable possibility after another.
Wood (nudging me): “I might be wrong. That’s why I asked you to drive by the house, I was trying to see if her name was on the letterbox, which of course it wasn’t.”
Me (drumming my fingers against the steering wheel): “The obvious way to prove you right or wrong is to knock on the front door. But that’s not going to happen. The Beagle’s Human is far too nosey for a successful stakeout, even if we used your car….”
Wood (splitting a spare cookie in two and holding half out to me): “Are you really that worried about it?”
Me (around my bite of cookie): “Maybe.”
Wood pursed his lips at me.
Me (rolling my eyes): “Alright, I’ll be an adult and let it lie. There’s no accounting for taste. In any case, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to hang out here while I pop into Nevermore for a second?”
Wood (unbuckling his seatbelt): “Not a chance.”
Me: “It was worth a try.”
…Tavi sent me this pic at an astonishing early hour of the morning. So either her text got caught in the wires someplace and got delivered late or she was having an exceptionally fun and late evening someplace!
(What the snap dragon looked like aflame – though taking a pic at night is difficult….)
Stopping just shy of requiring a blood oath, Abraham finally agreed not to seek out our unknown curious Errant on his own, so long as I promised to keep him in the loop.
Parting ways, my mind raced to fold in this new wrinkle.… My hunt for Big Ben is on autopilot at the moment unless I suck it up and ask Uncle for help….I’m knocking out my visit to Nevermore tonight, though Wood doesn’t know it yet. I’m unsealing Ira’s envelope after forty winks….So visiting the Genesis Points of Rye’s Errants seems feasible….I can fit a few drop-bys during my FLYT shifts if I’m careful…
Wood: “Morticia, you’ll never guess who I found wandering by…”
Me (wide-eyed): “Sarah!”
Wood: “Ah, you guessed.”
Me (laughing): “She’s sitting at the table, you dolt.”
Sarah (staring down at the table): “Hey Phoebe. Wood said you guys were out here moon bathing.”
Me (stepping next to a seated Wood): “Yup, you should join us!”
Sarah: “Isn’t the Lavender Lady’s backyard more convenient?”
Sarah’s curtly delivered question arrested my forward momentum. Leaving my knee leaning against the table edge and my sneaker planted on the seat next to Wood. Sarah, who was quickly denuding the plaid blanket of its pills, misses the quick shrug Wood gave me.
Me (slowly): “It is. However, it also has Ms. Hettie, who’s proven to have a low threshold for late-night frivolity.”
Sarah (pressing): “But why here? Why Remembrance Park?”
Me (trying to fathom her driving tone): “Have you ever heard of the Grey Man?”
Sarah (nodding): “Yes…”
Me: “Well, apparently he’s been spotted skulking around here several times over the years. Which makes sense since he used to live two streets over. Anyways, I thought I’d break in the spirit board Laney stitched for me and try contacting Wynter in a place he’s known to semi-frequent.”
Sarah (pushing): “Then why were you hanging out in the gazebo?”
Wood (unruffled): “Morticia was giving me some privacy while I face-timed Laney.”
Sarah (looking up finally): “Oh. So you guys really are just Moon Bathing?”
Words along the lines of – ‘What do you think we were doing?’ – died in my throat in response to a surreptitious squeeze of my sneaker. Snapping my mouth firmly closed, Wood picked up the conversational baton and did what he does best – putting people at ease.
Letting their voices buzz in my ears like so many bees, I took a good long look at Sarah. Dark rings hung low under her eyes, her blouse appeared more voluminous than usual, and her nails were bitten nearly to the quick.
She looked terrible.
Continuing to woolgather on how to get Sarah to eat a good meal, my eyes wandered restlessly onto the canvas tote sitting next to her. Slumped open, the distinct letterhead of Nevermore at the top of a wad of documents caught my eye. Followed by a couple of thick purple rebranding binders I’d last spied in Little Ben’s office.
Sarah, noticing the direction of my gaze, slipped the bag under the table.
Wood (calling my attention back to the table): “Morticia, Laney is dying to try out the spirit board. But has an early meeting, so she asked if we could postpone the reading until she got home. I told her you’d be okay with it.”
Me (laughing): “I don’t know, can you handle both of us having that much fun?”
Wood (grinning): “I’ll start cross-training immediately.”
Me (pointing at the hamper): “Sarah why don’t you make a plate while I set up our other entertainment, we’ve still got plenty of everything.”
Sarah, who’d downshifted from denuding the blanket to merely tracing the pattern with her index finger, hesitated just long enough in following my suggestion that Wood took the reins. Leaving him to it, I moved to the other end of the table and begun prepping my parlor game provisions.
Wood (offhanded): “Little Ben must be losing his marbles at KARB’s coverage of the protesters inside Nevermore.”
Sarah (after swallowing a massive bite of meatloaf sandwich): “You’ve no idea. Today, after His Highness heard KARB’s noon news break, he cussed out the radio for twenty minutes then stomped around for the rest of the day.”
Wood (dishing up a small bowl of chili): “Why?”
Sarah (pausing between bites): “Rye’s Garden Club and the University’s Botanical department publicly condemned his proposed expansion. I’m not looking forward to working with him after his meeting with the Aarti and Talia.”
Me (debating with myself while sprinkling raisins into the shallow dish): “Leave a steamed milk on his desk next to a jelly doughnut, that usually calms him down. Cherry’s is his favorite, but raspberry works as well. Both need to come from The Alter.”
Sarah (meeting my gaze for the first time): “Thanks, I’ll try that…”
Me (lighting a wooden match and carefully setting the apple brandy aflame): “Now have either of you ever played snapdragon?”
Between the brilliant blue flames leaping from the dish, the heart-pounding thrill of dipping our fingers into the blaze, and eating raisins still alight, Sarah’s unease burned away. Allowing the three of us to laugh easily in the pale moonlight.
If you haven’t already guessed my youngest cousin, Robbie, came as an unexpected surprise to Uncle and Aunt Pearl on November twelfth, nineteen-ninety-four. Well, the news they were getting a new addition to the household was a surprise – the inevitable event didn’t happen for another seven months.
Unlike our parental figures, the news didn’t faze us kids a whit.
Dwight secretly hoped they’d bring a puppy home from the hospital. Jesse worried Uncle would miss his hockey games. I blissfully ignored everything as I’d just discovered all the old trunks/cupboards/suitcases in the attic & started excavating them. I’m not sure about what Dylan or Ian thought about it – but it probably involved Legos.
What we didn’t appreciate at that point, though Aunt Pearl and Uncle probably did, was the steep age gap dividing us from Robbie. A gap that became glaringly obvious the year Robbie transformed into a teen. His teenage angst provided my cousins and me, who’d already transitioned into our twenties, with heaps of vaguely uncomfortable perspective on our own bouts of frightful behavior based on bad hair, worse judgment, and hormones. (And some serious entertainment for my Aunt and Uncle.)
Even more delicious?
Robbie had five additional targets for his pique.
Case in point, the Christmas after Robbie turned seventeen, I spent the entire day wishing I could kick his rear up around his ears. Why? For the whole of Christmas Day, he wouldn’t acknowledge my existence. He didn’t respond if I spoke, didn’t open the presents I made him, and tossed out his slice of cake after he learned I’d baked it. Plus, a whole host of other infuriating slights.
All because I busted him splitting a six-pack of beer with his buddies in Nevermore.
Apparently, I’d ‘completely embarrassed him’ after he assured his friends I’d be ‘cool’ if they got caught. Seems, ‘cool’ does not include packing said buddies into the Princess like sardines, insisting on driving them home and blistering their ears every inch of the way. Heaping insult on injury, Uncle caught Robbie sneaking in with beer on his breath and grounded him for a month.
Lamenting the sad state of affairs to Aunt Pearl whilst washing the last of the dishes. (In point of fact, my place setting as Robbie had been in charge of the clearing up.) I wound up my woe-is-me-s with, ‘I was never this bad at his age.’
Aunt Pearl laughed so hard she needed to sit down.
After she stopped wheezing, wiped away a tear or two, she assured me I had my moments. Then gave me a few words of wisdom that not only helped me deal with Robbie’s prickliness but with Abraham’s as well. “Don’t worry, Dear, he’ll figure out you’re on his side, eventually. Until then? Pretend you’re a duck.” So when Abraham’s voice dripped with barely contained disdain, due to my summons, I let it roll off my back like so much water.
Me: “Would you rather I track you down?”
Abraham: “Is that a threat?”
Me (exasperated already): “No, I’m asking, would you rather I track you down or simply request your presence?”
Abraham (gritting his teeth): “The beacon is fine.”
Me: “Okay. So now that we’re clear that I’m trying to respect your privacy and in no way threatening you. Which by the way, I feel the need to point out I’ve never done. I was wondering why you Flared at Orin.”
Abraham: “Ah, yes, your pets.”
Me (tossing my hands up): “My gods, you’re a pain in my ass.”
Abraham, not unlike Robbie in his teenage prime, calls forth the urge in me to kick something. Once, during one of our conversations, I booted a plastic lawn ornament so hard it sailed clean across the street where it landed spectacularly on Mrs. Snells’s (dragon of the front office of Rye High) front porch.
That being said, Abraham’s never let me down.
Abraham (honing in on the irritation): “You’re only here because I threatened one of your pets.”
To be fair, he’s not totally wrong.
Me (taking a deep breath): “You’re right, I came because you threatened Orin.”
Abraham exhaled expressively, not unlike a punctured tire, at my admission, and muttered something about forking pets I didn’t quite catch.
Me: “But I asked you to stop by because I was wondering why you felt the need to Flare at all.”
Abraham (sullenly): Why do you care? It took you months to come here and help them.
Me (utterly failing to marshal my patients): “I GOT HURT, OKAY! NOW CAN YOU JUST ANSWER THE FORKING QUESTION?”
Wood (calling out): “You okay, Morticia?”
Me (stomping to the gazebo’s entrance so Wood could see me): “Fine, just mad.”
Me: “I won’t be much longer…”
Watching Wood reluctantly turn back around, I listened to him resumed his conversation with Laney. Still fuming, I turned back around and found Abraham standing opposite me.
Abraham (his shoulders hunched): “Sorry, Caretaker.”
Me (trying to relax again): “Accepted, now tell me why you Flared….please.”
Abraham (shifting in place): “I mistook Orin for someone else.”
Me (disbelief shorting out my brain): “Who could you possibly mistake Orin for?… Did you got bored again and Flared at some random girl trying to freak her out, and Orin caught you?”
Abraham: “Who are you, my mom?”
Me (bouncing my toe against the floorboard): “Oh, for the love of Peter Rabbit…”
Oh. My. Lords.
He’s actually reduced me into sounding like Aunt Pearl, she must have said something along those lines million times while my cousins and I were growing up. Completely unhinged by this inadvertent bit of muscle memory, it took considerable effort to refocus on Abraham’s words while keeping the tip of my sneaker from connecting with something, anything solid.
Abraham: “…..traded punches with a while back.”
Me (ignoring the resulting eye roll): “Come again?”
Abraham (condescension laced his words): “Aren’t you listening? Some old dude I’ve never seen before was sniffing around Eliza.”
Me (raking my hand thru my hair): “Could be someone new.”
Abraham (trying to sound casual): “Maybe, but I couldn’t take the chance. You know since we’ve started going missing….”
Me (head jerking back): “Hold on, missing? Missing how?”
Abraham (sounding both smug and worried): “Neither Eliza or I noticed at first, but we haven’t seen Gus in nearly a year. Now, Sam, Maria, and Grady are nowhere to be found.”
Me: “Why didn’t you come to me?”
Abraham (brusquely): “I’m not one of your pets. I don’t need your protection. I’m investigating this myself.”
Struggling to shove aside my desire to punt his ass across the park – I took a deep breath and counted backward from twelve as I exhaled….
…Damn it, Abraham intentionally threatened Orin knowing I’d turn up so he could drop this bomb. For the love of Venkman – only Robbie in all his teenage glory – could come up with a method more labyrinthine than this to ask for help. Pushing aside the feeling I’d let Abraham down for later examination, I began navigating around his hardened shell of adolescent surliness.
Me (cracking my neck): “How about this, since I know where the Genesis Points are for the other Errants in town, why don’t I make the rounds and see what I find.”
Abraham: “While you do that, I can try and lure that dude out by circling my spot.”
Me (lighting lancing thru my stomach): “Actually, I was hoping you could do me a favor…”
Abraham (suspicious): “Depends.”
Me: “Since this unknown guy already found Eliza, there’s a good chance he’ll be back. So I was hoping you could guard her for me. If he turns up again, lead him to Nevermore.”
Abraham (bouncing on the balls of his feet): “Nice! Joseph will make mincemeat of him. Alright, I’ll do it if you promise to tell me what you find out.”
Me: “Deal. Anything about this guy stand out?”
Abraham: “No, just some skinny old dude in a green suit.”
It took some doing, but I managed to keep my smile on the inside at Abraham’s answer. You see, Orin is a great mountain of a man, who is neither old nor wears anything that could ever be mistaken for a suit or any shade of green.
(Laney’s design for the spirit board featured Morse Code…you know to weed out the undesirable tricksy spirits…)
Hunched over and walking backward around the picnic table, l concentrated on leaving an unbroken speckled line in my wake. A bemused Wood, who I caught from the corner of my eye, filching the last bite of baked beans off my plate, looked on.
Wood: “You know, pouring salt on the grass is going to kill it, right?”
Me (concentrating on maintaining an even pour): “Between the dogs, sprinklers, and rain showers, the salt will wash away before any permanent damage is done, don’t worry.”
Wood: “But why are you salting the earth?”
Me (delivering the last words with my very best Count Dracula voice – which is still pretty bad): “It’s a two-for-one kind of deal. It keeps you safe from all the creepy-crawlies, and it’ll keep you safe from all the Creepy-Crawlies…”
Wood: “Safety first, that’s what you’re going with.”
Hiding my smile, I kept my eyes trained on the grains of Himalayan pink, Hawaiian black, and fresh hand-harvested sea salt sprinkling from the slit in the bag.
After a spot of investigation on the internet and a lengthy conversation with Joseph, I think we sussed out how The Woman In White was able to cross the spilled salt and attack me. The contents of the bag I’d grabbed from the supply closet that night in Nevermore weren’t precisely what I thought. Instead of pure rock salt Sam ordinarily ordered, this year, he bought a blend – equal parts gravel, urea crystals, and rock salt (of highly dubious quality). So between this less than stellar mixture and strength born of insanity – The Woman In White muscled her way across.
We’re pretty sure.
Our lack of certainty on this particular point prompted me to use a salt blend Nevermore’s Residents helped me perfect but rarely use.
The imperfect circle I’m drawing might be overkill, as Orin’s unknown Errant isn’t unknown to me. However, not knowing why Abraham Flared kept my hands steady and steps even while I finished my final revolution around the picnic table where Wood sat.
Wood (sounding perplexed): “So what parlor game requires we sit within a ring of salt for safety?”
Me (walking back to the table and cramming the empty bag into my pack): “A spirit board.”
Wood (stupefied): “Ouija? Really? I can’t think of a single person I’m interested in contacting on the otherside.”
Me: “I know, but we’re not going to communicate with anyone there…”
With a flourish I placed the archival box, Aarti from the Historical Society lent me, in the middle of the table.
Wood (raising an eyebrow): “Okay…”
Me: “We’re going to try contacting the Grey Man.”
Opening the box, doing my best Vanna White impression, I flipped over formal photos, snapshots, snippets, and facsimiles. All the while explaining who Edmund Wynter was, his racket, the mystery surrounding his murder, and his notoriously active afterlife.
Me: “So what do you think? Want to give it a try?”
Wood (rolling his eyes): “I’m reconsidering my position on tiddlywinks.”
Wood loves all things weird and wacky but stands firmly in Houdini’s camp in regards to spiritualism.
His wife, Laney, on the other hand, loves this kind of thing. In fact, she stitched me the spirit board I’d unfurled on the table years ago after I gave her first full tour of Nevermore. She wasn’t clear on exactly how it would help me with my duties as Caretaker, but she figured it was better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
(I didn’t have the heart to tell her spirit boards don’t actually attract their intended demographic.)
Me (trying for a reasonable tone while swallowing a laugh): “It might be our only chance to solve his murder…”
Wood: “Last chance?”
Me: “Sightings of him have dropped dramatically over the past twenty-five years.”
Wood (dryly): “Right. I’m sure the drop in sightings has nothing to do with the fact Wynter was murdered in nineteen-thirty-eight.”
Me: “We could ask him where he stashed his blackmail materials. If his wife or murderer didn’t already turn them to ash.”
Wood (momentarily forgetting he thought spirit boards were pure hokum): “You want to find Pandora’s Box? Think of all the trouble his blackmail ledger could cause, Wynter had access to every government record in Rye.”
Me (shrugging): “I wouldn’t read it, I hand it over to the police, they’d read it.”
Wood: “And Pandora only meant to sneak a peek inside that damned box. What if your great grandparents had something hushed up by Wynter? Wouldn’t you want to protect their memory? Or how about my Gran?”
A ripple of electricity arcing across my toes jolted me out of the hypothetical ethical pickle Wood’s question placed me in. Glancing around, I spotted a scowling Abraham standing in the entrance of the gazebo staring at me. Turning back to my Moon Bathing companion, I found the solution to two out of three of my burning dilemmas in the buzzing of his phone.
Me (snapping my fingers in inspiration): “Tell Laney you’ll call her back on video chat. She can help us break in the spirit board – you’ll get a boatload of husband points.”
Wood, while muttering something about wishing Laney and I weren’t so close, answered his phone.
Wood: “Hey Twinkie, can you call me back on Facetime, please? Thanks…. Hey, where are you going?”
Me (getting up from the table): “The gazebo, my guy, just arrived.”
Wood (face lit by the glow of his phone): “Shout if you need me?”
Me (over my shoulder): “Of course! This shouldn’t take long.”
Stepping carefully over the ring of salt, I left Wood to catch Laney up with tonight’s entertainment. Walking past a glowering Abraham into the dim interior of the gazebo, he waited until I turned around and faced him before speaking.
Abraham: “I don’t care to be summoned, Caretaker.”
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