This was the pic the Naturalist’s Club & The Historical Society chose to place in the Daily Harvest – right above their list of demands in order to bring their sit-in to a conclusion…Damned I wish I could find Big Ben…
This was the pic the Naturalist’s Club & The Historical Society chose to place in the Daily Harvest – right above their list of demands in order to bring their sit-in to a conclusion…Damned I wish I could find Big Ben…
My mind, needing to take five from the quagmire sitting in the front room, chose this moment to focus on fashion or the lack thereof present in my wardrobe. On the upside, the absence of couture from my closet meant I landed on a palette pretty quickly – basic black. It covers nearly every contingency…right? From date night’s little black dress to a cat burglar’s costume to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work uniform – the color arising from the absence of light has range.
(Plus, it doesn’t show bloodstains…should any stabby feelings get out of hand…)
Pulling out a nearly new black scoop neck t-shirt, jet colored jeans, and matching inky accoutrements from my dresser, it didn’t take long before I was attempting a three-pointer with my balled-up pj’s (using my hamper as the basket).
Standing at the end of my bed, toeing on my tangerine tinted sneaker (because a girls gotta have some flare) without bothering to undo the laces, my eyes fell on the magnificence of Squiddy ensconced betwixt two un-cracked classics penned by Melville and Verne, respectively. Lifting him from his place of honor, I rubbed the stitches of a random arm ruminatively for an indeterminate amount of time before absentmindedly settling him on my head and exiting my room.
The fact I’d only managed to shove my right shoe on didn’t register until I was halfway down the hallway.
Whereupon, the wintery chill radiating up from my unshod left foot finally overrode my preoccupation enough to reorient my attention onto the frostbitten slice of the back garden… Made visible by the wide yawn of the front door. Warmed by the magma surging from my heart to the surface of my skin, the heat continued to intensify in response to the string of four-letter words I used to describe Little Ben. Darting forward to (presumably) help Beatrice stop him from leaving the Lavender Lady, I nearly tripped over my own feet, skidding to a stop as the pair darkened our doorstep.
Breath bellowing around the assortment of file boxes piled up past their eyes, they huffed and puffed their way back inside – Beatrice hooking an ankle along the bottom corner of the door and pulling it closed. Neither noticed me gaping at them, thanks to their sky-high burdens and conversation.
“…she’s just like Pop. They’d both rather loose a limb than sell a square inch of Nevermore.”
“Someone wants to buy Nevermore?” Beatrice’s distaste shown clearly in her voice.
“The city, they sent over an offer yesterday. That’s why I’m here. Because selling is the only solution the Board of Managers is willing to entertain and the loan’s due on Monday…”
This new sliver of data slipped seamlessly into the larger mosaic I’d constructed in my mind. Causing the rest of their exchange to skim over my eardrums without sending a single syllable up to my brain – because I could finally, almost, see the forest for the trees. Fiddling with Squiddy’s tentacle, I soon found myself staring at the brass borderline that separate hardwood of the hallway from the luxurious rug of the living room.
“Phoebe, are you alright?”
Jerking my eyes upward, I found Little Ben’s face wearing an odd assortment of expressions (concern amongst them). Beatrice, on the other hand, looked highly amused.
“Um, what? I’m fine.” Giving her an absent nod, I transferred my attention to Little Ben – who took the opportunity (probably buoyed up by the distinct lack of shouting, cursing, and visible disappointment) to start stammering out an apology.
“Look, Morticia, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
Holding up my index finger, I pressed onwards past his regret onto more pertinent matters. “Ben, this loan that’s put Nevermore in harm’s way, it wouldn’t be from Western Regional Bank, would it?
“How did you know?”
Unable to stymie a sly smile from creeping across my face, it met Beatrice’s raised eyebrow and grew a bit wider still. “Do you think Mr. John Dupree would be willing to come over and work with us? ASAP?”
“You’ve got it?”
“Not exactly, but I see our first two moves.” Beatrice returned my sly smile with a smirk of her own.
“Good enough for me, I’ll make a call. Though you might want to lose the hat gnawing on your eyebrows and find your other shoe before Dupree arrives.….” Stepping away from the heap of boxes at her hip, she strode across the hall into her office – only this time shutting the door firmly behind her.
Shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, Little Ben waited until after Beatrice left to start peppering me with questions. “Who is this Dupree fellow, why do we need him, and what have you got?”
Following my roommate’s advice, I slid the cephalopod, who’d quietly dipped low enough on my forehead to cover my eyebrows, off my head. Contemplating the stitches binding Squiddy’s fin to the rest of his body, I searched for the proper tone and phrase for my next set of words.
“Here’s the deal Ben, I don’t know if we can hold Nevermore together, but we’re going to try.”
Looking more relieved than he ought to since I could only barely make out the forest, Little Ben started tripping over his words again. “I…You…Thank you, Morticia. It’s more than…I’ve got all the loan documents here, and I brought every scrap of paper from Pop’s desk and his safe. I didn’t know if they could help, but….”
“Super, we’ll start looking them over in a minute.” Giving the file boxes the barest of glances, I moved on to address the elephant in light leather shoes teetering precariously on the highwire stretching between us.
“But first things first, Ben, you need to make me Nevermore’s Caretaker again.”
Gobsmacked is such a lovely word.
Not only does it have the word ‘smacked’ in it, but it also rolls off the tongue in such a pleasing manner. Conveying beautifully in a single word, the unexpected and staggering surprise that on occasion envelopes one’s person. Flabbergasted comes in as a close second, but I prefer the term gobsmacked in situations such as these – because that’s precisely how Little Ben’s stammering plea left me feeling.
Sitting on the couch, no longer denuded by Robbie’s efforts at nest building, I rode the silence (just as Wood taught me) waiting for Little Ben to embroider the bombshell he’d dropped on my doormat. Beatrice, who appeared equally stunned by Little Ben’s surprising statement, quickly excused herself from proceeding – citing the unspecific excuse of ‘work’.
(BTW, her office door is standing wide open across the hall.)
Little Ben himself was presently standing before Harold S. Ellington’s case and losing, as everyone does, a staring contest with him. “He looks like he’s been through the wars, when did you get him?”
“Actually, he belongs to my roommate Beatrice.”
“Seriously?” Glancing over his shoulder, Little Ben quickly returned for another stare-off with Harold. Unsurprisingly, Harold retained his clean sheet, forcing Little Ben to transfer his gaze onto a nearby shelf of books. “Only you could find someone to room with that owns their own skeleton.”
Letting my incredulity at his words fringe my own. “Thanks?”
Shaking his head, Little Ben rubbed his eyes and turned towards me. “I apologize, that was rude.” Standing stock-still in the center of the room, his eyes skipped past mine and eventually landed on the ceiling above the coffee table standing between us.
“I don’t know where to start.”
Recalling a favorite of Aunt Pearl’s pearls of wisdom, one she’d swiped from a childhood classic, I attempted to nudge Little Ben ahead. “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Giving an overly bright half-laugh, eyes still focused on the floor above our heads, he forced out three chilling words.
“Nevermore’s in trouble.”
Feeling my stomach drop away towards the center of the earth, I laced my fingers together on my lap to disguise their shaking and did my best to project the quiet calm of a snowy winter’s morning. Reminding myself – the only portion of this situation that is actually surprising is the fact Little Ben is asking for my help… Rather than me coercing him into accepting it.
“I took out a loan…”
“When you bought the MacGregor’s farm?” (For the Sunny Valley Farm Pet Cemetery.)
Finally, swinging his eyes off the ceiling, they veered briskly past mine (again) and latched onto the straight back chair next to the door. Picking it up, he set it across from me, sat down, and started scanning the pictures on the wall over my shoulder.
“No, I paid cash for the land.”
“Cash?” Jerking slightly back in surprise, I wracked my brain trying to recall the last balance sheet I saw (which was a while ago) for Nevermore and the proposed budgets in the propaganda I’d liberated from Little Ben’s office earlier this year. “How much of Nevermore’s savings did you spend?”
“Enough…” Leaning back in the chair and resting his neck on its back, resuming the detailed survey of the paint and plaster directly above his head. Fortunately, he continued on before I felt the need to prompt him. “…that there wasn’t enough money to start phase two of my plans, so I took out that damnable loan….”
“And I take it, that’s when everything started going wrong.”
A barely audible “yes” reached my ears.
Shutting out the wretched sight of Little Ben’s leaky eyes, I closed my own and pictured, in my mind’s eye, the early morning handicraft still drying in the kitchen.
“So, what’s changed?”
The question hung in the air between us for more than a few heartbeats. When it became apparent an answer wasn’t forthcoming, I pressed harder – venting off a bit of pent up spleen in the hopes of prying out any and all answers at a brisker pace. “Damn it, Ben, what’s happened that’s so bad you needed to ask me for help? Me?! The person you laid-off and evicted on the same day?”
Hearing him draw a rattling breath in response, I eased back on the couch and unclenched my fists.
“With all the bad press, picket lines, the sit-in…There’ve been a lot of calls to boycott Nevermore….the bank lost faith and called Nevermore’s loan due.”
Trying to keep my brittle calm from splintering, I focused on the problem at hand. “Okay. How much of the loan is left?”
“A little under two-thirds, the Naturalists and Historical Society protests really gummed up the works.”
“Is there enough left in savings to make up the difference?”
His only response was to lean forward and drop his head into his hands.
“What’s the penalty if you default?”
Watching his shoulders heave slightly in response, I stared in horror at the crown of his bowed head. “For forks-sake, what did you do?” The only rejoinder I received was a considerable surge in quaking. Reigning myself in, by sheer force of will, I rephrased the question in a less verbose and accusatory tone. “Ben, you need to tell me what happens to Nevermore if you default on the loan.”
In a labored voice, he finally pushed the answer out through the hands hiding his face, to the slice of carpet between his feet.
“I had to secure the loan.”
Convincing myself, I needed answers far more than I needed to shout, bellow or yell – I disregarded the buzzing in my ears, the bitter chill of my skin, and the liquid magma flowing beneath it.
Choosing, instead, to center my focus on the rise and fall of my chest to establish enough equanimity to speak sensibly…Breath In…1…2…3…4…5…6…7….Okay, this is worse than you ever imagined…..Breath Out…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10….so keep your shirt together…. Breath In…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…..you can scream into your pillow later…..Breath Out…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…“….How much of Nevermore did you put up as collateral.”
“Do. Better. Ben.”
Needing to put at least a nominal amount of distance between us, fearing I might actually give in to temptation and wring his miserable neck or spontaneously combust, I crossed out of the living room into the hall. Stopping on the threshold of Beatrice’s office, my peripheral vision caught a small movement down to my left. Beatrice, who at some point managed to swap her pajamas for regular clothes, sat cross-legged next to the open door staring up at me.
Setting aside the open magazine in her lap, she rose to her feet. “Bad?”
“Worse.” Flicking a glance over my shoulder, I turned back to meet her questioning gaze again. “Can you sit with him, or on him, if he tries to leave? I need a minute and a change of clothes.”
Lacing her fingers together, she stretched them out in front of her, cracked her neck, then gave me a curt nod. “On it.”
Chuckling, despite myself, I left Little Ben in her talented hands.
Earlier in the evening, as the rest of us participated in a respectful squabble over Ira’s intention to fetch further and more definitive proof of Sarah’s guilt, Leo was entertaining an entirely different line of reasoning.
(One he thankfully elucidated to the group prior to Ira leaving the Lavender Lady since it provided me with the perfect cover for ensuring Ira’s safety! It’s not that Leo, Robbie, or Ira doubted either what I saw of the conclusions I’d drawn – they just found it challenging to picture Sarah in such a dim light. But back to Leo’s dilemma….)
How on earth could we convince Little Ben he’s being eased along a primrose path?
It didn’t matter how many deductions, recordings, or eyewitness accounts we gathered. Little Ben would surely dismiss them out of hand the second he discovered I had generated the majority of them. Undoubtedly, he’d perceive my suspicions as a massive case of sour grapes due to my dismissal and his subsequent ‘success’.
Subtracting me from the equation wouldn’t work either.
Challenging his manipulation of the Board of Managers would fall just as flat. With Big Ben still in the wind and the Board itself controlled by Little Ben, Sarah, and Nathaniel – he’d turn defensive and, therefore, deaf the second we mentioned his sins.
Leaving us in the weeds – because if we can’t get Little Ben to see the ruinous route he’s traveling – it doesn’t matter a whit what we know. Arriving at this last stop of his train of thought left Leo feeling flummoxed, and the rest of us ready to spout mild abuse whilst he continued to relentlessly radda-tap-tap the edge of Little Ben’s business card against the tabletop.
Fortunately, before his syncopated beat produced a four-letter-word from any of us, he stopped.
Not because he realized the rest of were ready to reach across the table and rip the card from his fingers. But on account of the theory, Beatrice and I gave regarding the Stradivarius violin.
This was an angle we could work, which might actually work…
“Are you hoping to persuade Little Ben with the power of your deductions or the brilliance of your arts and crafts?”
Carefully placing the glue tipped piece of yarn onto the poster-board, I cautiously raised my index finger and was pleased when the fibers failed to follow. Looking over my shoulder, I saw my unusually perky roommate standing in the kitchen doorway in her pajamas and afflicted with an epic case of bedhead.
“Something can work on two levels.” Shooting a grin at her skeptical snort, I continued. “Little Ben’s a visual learner, I though a diagram might help him grasp what we found last night.”
Plus, I couldn’t fall back asleep after waking up at a quarter to five this morning.
Pausing next to me for a moment before heading to the percolator, Beatrice surveyed my work, then pointed at the upper right-hand corner where I’d placed Agata’s photo. “You might need a smidge more glitter, right there.”
“You think?” Standing back, I scrutinized my handiwork with a critical eye.
Obviously choking back a chuckle. “No.”
“Okay, so I went a hair crazy.”
Watching Beatrice out of the corner of my eye, my heart fluttered for a second when she swiped a fingertip across the kitchen counter and then carefully scrutinize it. Crap. Staring down at my creation, with the same intensity a cat regards a bowl of ice cream, I endeavored to ignore the weight of Beatrice’s narrow gaze.
Catching my furtive glance thru the fringe of my bangs, her inner Queen Victoria ‘I am Not amused’ face forced me to revise my previous statement. “A smidge crazy?”
Please don’t let her look in the sink – I haven’t had a chance to wash away the unicorn sick yet.
(Seriously, that’s what it looks like.)
In my defense, after a tiny, minuscule, microscopic amount of glitter spilled off the poster-board onto the kitchen table as I rotated it. (So the Elmer’s glue received an even coat of the sparkly stuff.) I decided to work over the sink. This brilliant idea meant I needed to move the poster-board and its mounds of excess glitter to the sink….
Superfine glitter + giant sneeze = a dazzling kitchen.
Honestly, it would’ve coated the kitchen no matter where the sneeze happened, and I did my best to clean it up…but once glitter tastes freedom, it’s a bit like a tribble with a steady food source and no predators – it multiplies rapidly. (And who doesn’t enjoy the odd sparkle festooning their person?…………………………Right? It certainly makes the multicolored macaroons on my flannel pajamas pop and spark.)
Fishing out the woven trivet from under my crafting supplies, Beatrice set down the fresh pot of coffee and joined me at the table. “Luckily, Ms. Hettie will completely understand why I need to burn down the house.”
“Ha. Ha.” Placing dot of glue on the poster-board, I held the ball of yarn above it and snipped off the correct length, connecting Sarah’s photo to Rye High’s 1998 Prom Queen. “I’ll bet you a five-spot Ms. Hettie is secretly a fan of glitter.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Think of those sweatshirts she constantly wears. Nearly all of them have little glitter or metallic paint or small rhinestones on them.”
“Huh. There might be something in that…” Sipping her mug of coffee, Beatrice leaned forward for a closer look at my work.
Turning the entire board 180 degrees, so she didn’t get a crick in her neck, I watched Beatrice’s hovering finger trace the strands of yarn I’d used to highlight the links between Josie and her collaborators. “You’d think they’d have been more careful in concealing their roles in Josie’s scheme.”
Rising from the table, I stepped over to the sink to rinse the old coffee from my mug (while also taking a moment to swish, splash and swash the water around in an attempt to disperse the glitter glaze currently coating it). “Honestly, I don’t think it ever crossed Josie’s mind that anyone would go looking – as everyone but Sarah has at least one degree of separation dividing their actions from scrutiny.”
“Any clue why she’s trying to undermine Nevermore?”
Before I could form an answer, our front door reverberated under an energetic knock – that kept going for several beats longer than Ms. Manners would ever countenance.
Looking at each other, we uttered the same sentence together. “Are you expecting someone?”
In a stunning display, that would’ve beat Wood’s personal best, Beatrice pounced. “Jinx! You owe me a Coke!” Shooting me a mischievous grin, she scooted around the table in the direction of the front door, leaving me to follow silently in her wake – trying to recall if we’d said Ms. Hettie’s name three times out loud.
Pausing to look thru the peephole, Beatrice started slightly. “Morticia, when did you say Little Ben was stopping by?”
Released from the jinx, I glanced at my watch. “One, why?”
“Well, prepare yourself.” Unbolting the door, Beatrice swung it open, revealing Little Ben standing on our doormat.
“Is Morticia home?”
Stepping around my roommate, unwittingly shielding her from the stiff northerly breeze that decided now was the time to start nipping at my bare toes, it also forcibly reminded me I was still wearing pajamas. “Ben, what are you doing here? We aren’t supposed to get together until one.”
Shifting his weight between his feet, a flush creeping across his face, he glanced around for a second before stumbling over some stunning words. “I…I…..I’ve got….There’s a problem with Nevermore, and I don’t know what to do, and I can’t wait…..because I really need your help.”
Utterly astonished, I stepped back from the door and let Little Ben in.
Despite the relatively short walk back to the Lavender Lady, Joseph insisted on providing an escort. His confirmation of my hunch, unfortunately, lead to a pair of slightly soggy eyes, which shocked and appalled us both in equal measure. Hence, Orin’s presence on my left.
(Finding out Sarah hadn’t been a friend of mine for some time, stung a surprising amount.)
“Would you like me to keep on tabs on her?”
Giving him a wane smile, I shook my head at Orin’s offer. “That’s not necessary.”
“I don’t mind.” Ambling easily next to me, his casual tone didn’t fool me.
Embedding himself in Sarah’s life, on the off chance he might discover a new nugget of information, isn’t going to happen. Not only is it sleazy to spy on someone in such a manner, but it’s also incredibly cruel to Orin. Isolation and loneliness are highly corrosive elements to Errants and Residents alike. As Sarah’s life is filled with a plethora of people should Orin insert himself in her life, it could quickly drive him around the bend.
“Really, don’t worry about it. I’ve got her number now.” Nearing the Lavander Lady’s back gate, another thought occurred to me. “Though, if you’re bored, it would be a huge help if you could track down Abraham and pass on a message for me.”
“If you could let him know; I’ve check-in with about half the Errants in Rye without finding anything unusual. I’m planning on visiting everyone else over the next week or two.”
Nodding briskly, we paused under the orange glow of the streetlamp by the garden gate. “Anything else?”
Leaning a hip against the slats of the fence for a moment, I shook my head. “Not that I can think of unless you’ve spotted an Errant sporting a green suit wandering about?” Watching Orin’s head duplicate the previous motion of my own, I moved on. “You’ll probably find Abraham hanging-out with Eliza.”
“Then, that’s where I’ll start. Take care, Caretaker.”
“Night, Orin, and thanks.”
Touching his cap, Orin turned on his heel in the direction of the park. Pushing open the gate, ignoring the single butterfly in my stomach that steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the rechristening of Beatrice’s shed, I quickly mounted The Map Room’s shallow steps.
Thankfully, the Lepidoptera I’d dubbed Mrs. Futtersworth, winged it after I flipped on the lights.
Standing before the waist-high wall of boxes, I silently patted my past self on the back for her meticulous labeling skills. Quickly locating the correct cardboard cube containing seven years’ worth of yearbooks, it took mere moments to extract them from their repository, shut off the lights, lock the door, and retrace my earlier route up the garden path. (Only at a far more sedate pace.)
Thankfully my belated arrival back at the Lavender Lady didn’t spawn a single one of my worst-case scenarios. Instead, I found myself nose to nose with one very pushy cousin (and when I say pushy, I mean that in the literal sense of the word).
“Does the name Kiyomi Kimura mean anything to you?”
“Kiyomi Kimura, do you know her?”
“She was one of Josie’s sycophants, why?”
“Her name came up, she’s the Garden Club’s secretary, by the way, and it’s been killing me because I know, I know her…”
“You’re probably recalling the time Wood literally stood on Aunt and Uncle’s rooftop shouting about Rye High winning both the girl’s and boy’s state soccer titles. He and Kiyomi captained their respective sides.”
Dancing out of the way, and thus allowing me to actually enter the apartment, Robbie successfully blocked my attempt to set down my armload of yearbooks. Pressing his advantage further, he deftly shepherded me towards Beatrice’s office by nudging, bumping and jostling me along.
It took less than a second for our guffaws to fill the hall as his herding technique devolved into him, bodily shoving me along while I did my best to emulate a boulder. (Which didn’t work, neither did visualizing redwood roots binding my sneakers to the floor or picturing my bones turning into lead. In case your wondering.)
Robbie, who didn’t view his additional seven inches and fifty plus pounds as an unsportsmanlike advantage, crowed in triumph as he manhandled me across the threshold. Panting slightly and still wearing an impish grin, Robbie promptly flopped onto a pile of forest green cushions customarily found on the living room couch and picked up his tablet. The others, all of whom wore varying expressions of amusement at our antics, resumed their work. Ira, who’d handily beat me back here, sat at Beatrice’s computer zipping thru the security video Joseph already summed up for me. Beatrice and Leo sat opposite each other in the chairs by the window, typing on their respective laptops.
“The Brownie Stealing Bench and Kiyomi were friends in high school.” Robbie, after tapping in his password, aimed my answer at Leo.
Leo transferred his gaze from his screen onto me. “Are you sure?”
Stifling the memories of their mocking laugher, I answered. “Yes.”
“How about Larissa Cardenes and Agata Canetti?”
Crossing the room, I set the yearbooks on the edge of the desk where Ira was working and divested myself of my jacket. “Part of the core group as well.”
“Ummm…..he was in our class…I think one of them went to prom with him, maybe? I’ll check.”
Luckily, stealing a cushion from the edge of Robbie’s nest only elicited a few minor grumbles from its creator. Satisfied the theft wasn’t going to result in getting winged in the head by a retaliatory flying frosted cookie, I set my purloined bit of padding betwixt Leo and Beatrice.
Before I started skimming through my senior year yearbook, for the Prom Court photo-montage, I glanced up at Leo. “So, I gather the hunch panned out?”
Catching my glance, Leo gave me a wide wolfish smile.
This is the notice I’m hoping my presence (and Joseph’s help) will avoid attracting!
(Now, I’ve never been to California and seen the Redwood Forest – but this is what my imagination pulls up when I think of them…)
Spotting a flash of light off in the distance, I shrunk into the deepest shadow shrouding the corner between the South and West gates of The Crossroads. Straining my ears, I heard the tell-tale sound of tires striking a speed bump as the automobile rolled closer. Channeling my inner redwood, endeavoring to match the stillness of those massive trunks, I watched the car carrying Nevermorian security cruise unhurriedly past my hiding spot. Admittedly there’s a substantial expanse of grass between myself and the cruiser – but even a locked door – draws the critical eye of a good guard.
It wasn’t until the red glow of the taillights finally faded to small specks that I let my mind drift off of its tremendously tall loci and exhaled gustily. Detaching myself from the gloom, I jogged in place for a minute to warm up. (By way of payment, the walls responsible for casting the concealing shadows, sucked the warmth from the marrow of my bones.) No longer as stiff or chilly, I pulled up my sleeve and stared at two glowing green hands.
Thirty-four minutes had already slipped by since I scampered out my front door.
Dear gods above and below, please let Leo, Robbie, and Beatrice have found something in their research that immediately arrested their attention. Thus allowing my pretext, of heading down to the Map Room to fetch my old school yearbooks, to stay intact. Because I really don’t want to own my overriding reason for following Ira to Nevermore.
On the upside, I’ve landed on a plausible and truthful rationale for keeping tabs on Ira – should anyone realize I’ve scarpered. I’ll cite my genuine anxiety about Ira’s safety. Since he needs to waltz past the majority of people cahooting together to retrieve the potential evidence of Sarah’s duplicity. (Thus, my tail makes sense.)
At no point, if an explanation is required, will I concede my genuine motivation. Which essentially boils down to Ira’s parting shot – “I’m going to Nevermore, what could possibly happen?”
Seriously? Would you care for the answer in alphabetical or chronological order.
In an attempt to make him appear less tempting to the Fates, I enlisted the aid of someone who’s aces at tiptoeing around Nevermore undetected. As I couldn’t just let Ira stroll thru automatic doors of Nevermore’s main building (mosey his way back to the security hub, copy several days worth of security video & logs, then retrace his steps) all by himself.
Hence my pell-mell run down the back garden path, over several neighboring lawns, and along the sidewalks to the closest corner of Nevermore. Pleading to the universe during the entire – heart-rending, lung-busting, sneaker-slapping – run for Joseph to be hanging about The Crossroads tonight.
Someone must’ve heard me because no sooner had I tripped onto the grounds – Joseph was at my side. Doubled over and panting, I managed to vocalize Ira, main building, and keep safe.
He needed no other information.
Raising my cuff, I glanced at the luminous hands on my watch again and found only two minutes had ticked by.
Waiting is the worst.
“He’s safely out of Nevermore.”
Leaping six inches in the air at the wildly unexpected sound of Joseph’s voice next to my ear, I narrowly suppressed the surprised scream my throat yearned to expel. “Jiminy Christmas, you should wear a bell….Thank you for looking after him.”
A smile I couldn’t see, due to the lack of light, colored his voice. “You are welcome. Though he needed very little help from me.”
“Thank the gods.” Shoulders sagging, my mind spontaneously called up the image of the redwood again. Only this time, my feet were its roots, and I watched my anxiety flow thru them and saturate the ground beneath my sneakers.
(It didn’t seem to matter much to my mind that this wasn’t how roots worked.)
Head tilted, I saw concern in Joseph’s eyes as a match flared to life, lighting the cigarette stationed between his lips. “Why the panic? Ira didn’t go anyplace he didn’t rightfully have access too.”
Transfixed for a moment by the red coal, which glowed a hair brighter as he inhaled, it took a moment to recall my reasonable and honest excuse. “He might’ve been caught in the midst of downloading some compromising information…”
“Indeed.” The amused tinge of his voice spoken volumes.
Scuffing the toe of my sneaker on the ground, I gave in. “Alright, Ira tempted the Weird Sisters right before he left the apartment, and I couldn’t take a chance of something or someone happening to him.”
Tilting his head, he took another drag of the cigarette. “You worried he might come to harm?”
Snorting without humor, I tipped my head back and stared at the twinkling stars for a second, forming my reply. “Maybe? Worst case scenario…”
“Why take the risk?”
“Proof, he and the others needed a hair more to fully believe Sarah’s guilt.” Straightening my shoulders, I dove straight into the niggling set of doubts that’d been pestering me. “You remember the incorrect dates Sarah gave me for the arrival and burial of Tiffany Grindle’s remains? She was the only one who knew there was a chance I was going to break into the building and/or creep about Nevermore…”
“…and if she set a trap, you’d know for certain where her loyalties lie.”
Holding the half-finished smoke towards me, I shook my head at the unspoken offer (Joseph has far superior night vision) and answered his other question. “Let’s just say her explanation for the mix-up no longer satisfies.”
He paused, holding in the lungful of cigarette for a moment before expelling it. “These fabricated dates of Sarah’s started the night after you subdued the Woman In White, correct?”
“And the three following…” My voice trailing off as the implications of his answer hit me – extinguishing the small sliver of hope I’d unconsciously held onto in a dark secret part of my heart.
I watched his still smoldering smoke drop to the ground and disappear beneath the heel of his shoe. “Security guards were stationed all over Nevermore and inside Sarah’s Domain & Depository for the seven nights following our…adventure.”
Rocking back, I blinked quickly up at the moon, trying to breathe around the lump in my throat. Should’ve taken a puff of his cigarette, could’ve blamed the salty liquid leaking from my eyes on smoke irritation.
The name (most) every string musician would love to see inside their instrument.