Category Archives: Ira

2.53 What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

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(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. 

Fork.

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. 

2.51.b Revelatory Reading

“…that’s why Little Ben gave Ira a paper promotion.” Smoke practically poured out of Leo’s ears as he careened towards the same conclusion Beatrice and I reached last night. “He wants control of Nevermore’s coffers.”

Robbie, “How would flipping one vote help him? He’d still need to sway Ira’s replacement, plus everyone else.”

Ira, leaning back against his chair, a shrewd light in his eyes. “The move makes Gavin the most junior member of the Board. Everyone else has at least a decade of service on him, undoubtedly he will follow their lead. And I’m guessing my promotion wasn’t Little Ben’s first or last step at influencing the Board, was it?”

Unearthing, from the pile of promotional material I’d absconded with months ago, I found one of Little Ben’s new business cards and tossed it into the center of the table with a flick of my wrist. Ira remained still, but Leo and Robbie leaned forward to read fine print embossed beneath the heavy script of ‘Ben Abernathy, Provisional Proprietor…’

‘…Caretaker.’ 

Picking the card slowly and deliberately off the table, Leo stared into space, gears whirring away in his head, while his hand used the edge of the card to tattooed a staccato beat against the tabletop. “He didn’t just take-over your Cottage. Damn, how did I miss that?”

From the off, my dismissal from Nevermore felt funny.

Little Ben’s wafer-thin cover story hinged on his intent to funnel my salary back into Nevermore. More specifically, into his new Sunny Valley Farm & Pet Cemetery scheme. On the face of it made a modicum sense – until he literally spent all of this ‘savings’ on updating The Cottage. At the time I was so topsy-turvy from being issued a pink slip and eviction notice within the same breath, I chalked up the frittering away of funds to his general lack of good sense and judgment.

It never once crossed my mind something more laid beneath, until Beatrice read our scribe’s account of their first few months as Provisional Proprietor. Then Little Ben’s cock-and-bull story shattered like a hammer striking glass. 

My layoff was never about saving money. It was about co-opting my job title to gain a seat and vote on the Board of Managers. 

Leo’s gaze remained unfocused as he absorbed the implications, the only outward sign of what was going on between his ears was the continued tapping of Little Ben’s card. Ira merely leaned back in his chair and nodded periodically to himself. Beatrice, having already canvassed this ground with me last night, got up from the table and started making coffee. I followed her lead, only my trajectory aimed me towards the paper line tin sitting further down the counter from the coffeepot.

Robbie, after rereading the short passage about the composition of the Board, found his voice first. “Surely, the Head of Legal wouldn’t allow this to happen. There’s an obvious conflict in having Little Ben, as Provisional Proprietor, sit on the Board.” 

Setting the now open tin of birthday cake madeleines in the center of the table, minus one, I returned to my seat. “Let’s put a pin in that question for a second and try to think of another reasonable explanation as to why Little Ben would want to co-opt my job title.”

Ira, unfolding his arms, leaned forward and chose one of the delightfully speckled madeleines from the tin. “Your theory explains a great many things, not the least of which is why all the unabridged copies of the Conventions went missing. But I’ve known that boy for his entire life and worked with him for well over twenty years. He doesn’t have the cunning in him to pull off this kind of chicanery.”

“I agree. But now ask yourself, why was it so important for Josie to figure out if I’d seen Sarah leaving her house.” Popping the last half of my madeleine in my mouth, I chewed up the deliciously sweet cake waiting for one of them to respond. 

Tipping his head Ira regarded me thoughtfully. “You think the three of them are working together?”

“Not quite, due to the bad blood between Lucas Reville and Big Ben, I can’t really see Little Ben would work with Josie.” Gnawing on my lip, my eyes drawn to Leo’s uneven drumming of Little Ben’s card, I continued. “I believe Sarah and Josie are working together to influence Little Ben. To what ending I’m not sure, but I doubt it’s for the good of Nevermore.”

“Cuz, I know the Brownie Stealing Bench is the root of all evil, but this is closing in on conspiracy theory territory…” Robbie’s uncertain tone was belied by his hand/arm as it stretched across the table to grab the top six inches of Nevermore rebranding materials.

After a sip of coffee, waiting to see if any of the others wanted to chime in, I turned the laptop screen so they could see it. “I agree, it sounds cockeyed. However, let me show you something…”

2.51.a TGIF

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Leo (standing stock-still in the middle of the kitchen and thus in nearly everyone’s way): “Forget the worksheets, you found a copy of the unabridged Conventions?”

Me (fetching the stack of materials from next to the radio): “Nope, still a big goose egg on that front. The copy Beatrice and I’ve been working with is the great-great-grandparent of the Conventions’ current iteration.”

Leo, who finally moved out of the center of the kitchen, joined me at the table ostensibly to wipe it down with a sponge. Waiting until the worst of the sticky soy glaze had been cleaned away, I set down my armful of information. Leo, executing a first-class jump shot, pitched the sponge over Ira and Beatrice’s heads and into the kitchen sink – then turned back towards the table.

Leo (taking the chair across from me): “So where did you find it, Boss?”

Me (slipping the handouts out from between the salient pages): “Beatrice transcribed a couple of crucial passages for you guys.” 

Robbie (tossing the napkins and placemats into the laundry hamper): “Transcribed?”

Wordlessly I open the atypical copy of the Conventions to a random page and swiveled it around so the Leo, Robbie, and Ira (both of whom had joined Leo and I at the table after finishing their self-appointed chores) could get a clear gander at the pages.

Ira (emitted a low whistle): “All this needs is a couple of illustrations, and you’d have a classier version of the Voynich manuscript.”

Beatrice (pouring the detergent into the dishwasher): “Fortunately, it isn’t quite as unintelligible as that document.”

Me (pushing the laptop’s power button): “Though undoubtedly, this is the author that prompted the powers-that-be’s switch to a movable typeface.”

And created, thank the gods above and below, a table of contents and an index. 

Because it’s all well and good to explicitly and formally elucidate the best practices and policies concerning a whole host of likely, plausible but unlikely and utterly improbable events that could occur within the borders of Nevermore. But without a clear and concise method of finding and extracting said information from its’ 2,236 pages. You’re stuck in the role of gawking onlooker when a graveside brawl erupts amongst mourning family members when one faction takes umbrage with another, at the lack of classic punk music during the beloved family member’s service (the Ramones in particular).

Unfortunately, my reliance on the aforementioned feature directly contributed to my failure to read the Conventions’ current iteration in its totality. Well, I suppose if I’m totally truthful, my reliance on the index really sprang from two sources: A) the now obviously erroneous assumption I’d always have access to its pages and B) the fact I found the gargantuan size of the binder a smidge intimidating. Which considering the number of pages in the Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, and Amelia Peabody series, which I devoured as fast as I could turn the page, you’d think 2,236 pages easy-peezie. 

However, 2,236 pages quickly multiply to 4,472 when you realize you’re reading prose drier than a breeze blowing across the sands of the Gobi desert.

The heirloom edition of the Conventions, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer from this arid affliction (or find itself cursed with even a cursory index). As it doesn’t so much layout guidelines for things like hiring, firing, or corrective action as it chronicles said events. My favorite admonishment was issued to one Dolores Sullivan, who apparently our author caught cheating at the Egg & Spoon race during the Summer Company Picnic. 

Which begs the question – how? 

Did Dolores glue her egg to the spoon? Use a soup spoon rather than a teaspoon? Tamper with the egg itself, weighing it down from the inside? All three methods, it seems to me, would be easily detectable. So how did she plan on getting away with it? 

Despite the rigorous care taken in recording the daily minutia of Nevermore – the enumeration of which allowed Beatrice (once she deciphered the madness behind our author’s method) to hurtle her way from cover to cover – our author failed to fill in the blanks on how Dolores endeavored to perpetrate her fraud. 

This lapse in detail vexed both Beatrice and me.

Not only because the tone of the passage made it seem as if our author was the only one who saw thru the deception. But on account of the fact, we’re relying on our scribe to reliably archive the finer points of their experience as Provisional Proprietor.

Robbie (running an eye over the first of the several stapled pages I handed to him): “This is the condensed version?”

Me: “More or less. I wanted to give you guys all the info, in case I missed a nuance somewhere.”

Ira (setting his packet down on the table in front of him): “Give us the broad strokes.”

Me (taking a deep breath): “Alright, this is what Beatrice and I worked out…”

Similarly to Little Ben, our scribe unexpectedly became the Provisional Proprietor of Nevermore. (Though in their case, the promotion came about on account of a heart attack suffered by their predecessor rather than an inexplicable vanishing act.) To help our newly minted Provisional Proprietor, as Nevermorian tradition dictates, the Board of Managers was convened. 

The Board of Managers is composed of the Head of Legal, Chief Groundskeeper, Longest Tenured Employee (outside the other four), Chief Funeral Director, and Caretaker. Together they not only advise the Provisional Proprietor – a majority vote of the Board is required to access Nevermore’s coffers… 

Leo (shaking his head): “You think Little Ben’s manipulating the Board somehow, don’t you…”

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.” 

2.36.a Metaphorical Carrots

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(I do like theSudsy Bubble’s neon sign.)

The continuous rustling, scampering, and whispering outside Uncle’s office door woke me from my full stop sleep. Cracking an eye slowly open, the first thing to kiss my retinas was a weak grey light sidling thru the gap in the curtains. Groaning inwardly, I rapped a knuckle against the hardwood floor twice. 

The niblings giggled in response then scurried off towards the kitchen.

Taking a look at my watch, which read a ridiculously small single-digit number, I managed to heave one leg out from under the well-loved quilt and plant my barefoot on the cool floorboards.

I maintained this pose for the next two minutes.

(The late bedtime, beers, and bull shirting coupled with the absurd – but predictable – early rising of the niblings was producing a speed from me only a three-toed sloth could admire.)

Coaxing the rest of my limbs into coordinating their efforts, I finally sat up. Blinking, my eyesight gradually came into focus on the elephant sitting stoically on the edge of the oak desk, waiting for me to wake up.

The patient pachyderm being a worn inter-office envelope. In theory, it contains a list of names Big Ben dropped in his correspondence with Ira. But after examining the envelope last night, I’m certain Ira included a whole lot more information than just a simple list.

(I’d like to say my powers of deduction have improved…But the fact is the envelope’s bulky, somewhat lumpy and weighs approximately the same as Uncle’s leather-bound, fully illustrated, gilt-edged copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities made this illation rather obvious.)

Even though I knew the niblings would return shortly to strong-arm me into ‘helping’ them make banana pancakes and bacon – I longed to solve the riddle wrapped in buff-colored paper. However, the same sly voice in my head that staid my hands last night kept my butt firmly planted on the couch this morning.

It not-so-subtly reminded me that I needed a carrot. 

Not a literal carrot – only donkeys are motivated into action by root vegetable dangling from a stick – but a metaphorical carrot.

Like New Magazine Day.

Founded just under twenty years ago, New Magazine Day developed in response to an unfortunate incident at the Sudsy Bubble Laundromat. When a tremendously tedious chore turned unexpectedly mortifying after the cute guy at the next machine remarked on the shabby state of my underpants. 

In fairness, they were faded, ever so slightly pilled, and threadbare – but that’s beside the point. Snarky Underpants Guy’s comment was a Grade-A violation of laundromat etiquette! Tenets including: never leaving your clothes unattended, never overloading a machine, and never folding a stranger’s finished load. 

You definitely don’t allude to, offer opinions on or critique another patron’s drawers! 

They’re called unmentionables for a reason! 

In any case, instead of wiping the smirk off his face with a well deserved verbal skewering – I turned beet red, stammered out a nonsensical apology, ducked my head, and scurried away (ah, the joys of being nineteen). His subsequent laughter at my very obvious embarrassment caused me to contemplate abandoning my clothes on the spot. Fortunately, I’m made of sterner stuff (and calculated I didn’t have enough money in my checking account to replace them) and waited the sixty-five agonizing minutes for the dryer to finish fluffing my last load. 

Then I booked it out of there, vowing never to set foot inside those four walls ever again. A completely ineffectual vow, as the Sudsy Bubble was both the closest & cheapest of the laundromats in Rye.

Three weeks later, grasping at straws, i.e., dressed in the dredges of my closet, I showed up to Family Feast Day wearing a nuclear green polyester skirt and vest set given to me by my colorblind Grandmother one Christmas.

Aunt Pearl immediately sensed something was wrong.

After sussing out why I was wearing an outfit only Don Knotts could love, she told me I had nothing to be embarrassed about and offered to blister Snarky Underpants Guy’s ears for me. An offer I declined on the grounds it wouldn’t make the situation any less cringeworthy. Nodding thoughtfully over her coffee cup for a few moments, Aunt Pearl leaned forward and confided in me how she managed to sit thru her bi-weekly meetings with her sourpuss of a Principle. 

On the way home, after each of the aforementioned maddening meetings, she stops off at either the Yarn Underground, Warp and Woof or The Crafty Fox to buy herself a little something. A skein of yarn, a yard of fabric or kit – it just needed to be something she’d enjoy playing with – as a reward for keeping her mouth shut. By following her carrot down the straight & narrow, she got something new to craft, kept the peace, and remained gainfully employed. 

(It also explains how Aunt Pearl’s sewing space slowly engulfed the neighboring room – she worked with said pettifogger for fifteen more years after giving me this kernel of wisdom.) 

All I needed to do was find my carrot.

Mulling this over the next day while contemplating which would be worse – wearing my high school P.E. uniform or the ghastly bridesmaid’s dress Jesse’s new husband chose – my eyes landed on a stack of months old magazines I’d borrowed from the Library. 

Eureka! My carrot! I’d buy myself the latest issues of all my favorites magazines to get me past my dread, thru the front doors, and recharge my closet with clean cloths! 

(BTW – I ended up at the Sudsy Bubble at six-thirty am, carrying twelve magazines, in my old P.E. uniform. I used seven machines simultaneously to get every scrap of fabric washed, fluffed, and folded in one go. Thankfully it was a Sunday, and no one, other than the attendant, was around. Otherwise, I’d have been committing a Grade-B violation of laundromat etiquette! Speaking of violations, I didn’t run into Snarky Underpants Guy again for over a month, and happily, my stack of magazines allowed me to ignore him entirely.) 

Ever since then, New Magazine Day has worked beautifully as my go-to carrot.

Until now.

The foot-high stack of unread magazines next to my bed testifies that I needed something more substantial to compel me into investigating the Errant that Flared at Orin.

2.20.b Cheesy Strategies

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(Apparently my mac’n’cheese flavor, is a twist on Haitian Spaghetti! And it’s great!)

Me (trying to keep hope in check): “Help you…”

Leo: “…fix Nevermore?”

With a bemused expression, Ira explained.

Shortly after his unnecessary promotion and upon discovering his copy of the Conventions missing, Ira placed a call to Big Ben. Only to find both Big Ben’s landline and cell were no longer in service. Discussing his unease with his Missus, she asked him one particularly salient question; “Who in Nevermore do you and Big Ben both trust?” 

Her words were still rolling around in the back of Ira’s brain when he and Leo got to talking after the latter approached the former about trying to persuade Little Ben from ejecting the Naturalists from Nevermore. 

Their mutual troubles lead to their first “summit” in the Rare Records Room.

Over a few beers and bowls of mac’n’cheese, they rewound, reviewed, and rehashed every episode, major or minor, occurring in Nevermore over the past year. My unexpected termination quickly made their list of nebulously linked hinky feeling events. So did Big Ben’s radio silence and unprecedented extended absence from Nevermore. At about this point, Leo, in a fit of frustration, wondered where their guesswork was getting them – that’s when Ira repeated his Missus’s question. 

Needless to say, their answers matched.

And here we are.

Taking a measured sip of my second drink, I slowly rolled it across my tongue, feeling oddly relieved that I wasn’t the only one who’d felt an ill wind blowing through Nevermore.

Me (taking a deep breath): “I’m pretty sure I know what Little Ben and the Board of Managers have been working on.”

Leo (cut in utterly astonished): “How? Even I couldn’t finagle that….”

Me (drily): “How did you find out about the NDA’s?”

Leo (wiggling his eyebrows): “Touché.”

With timing, only servers can muster our bowls of bespoke mac’n’cheese arrived. Since the eighth wonder of the world required our complete concentration to properly appreciate, our conversation stuttered to a stop until Leo, and I licked our bowls clean (Ira restrained himself from following suit, but then he can eat here whenever he chooses). 

Once we recalled our place, which took a moment due to the sheer quantity of cheese hurtling through our arteries, I filled them in on Little Ben’s rebranding plans.

Leo (bleakly): “So there’s no hope of the Naturalists staying in Nevermore.”

Not wanting to mouth platitudes, I stayed silent.

Ira (slowly): “I agree, the financial questions need answering.”

Leo: “What do the missing Conventions and Ira’s promotion have to do with rebranding Nevermore?”

Me: “No clue. But the timing seems curious.”

We gnashed our teeth on our list nebulously linked hinky affairs over two more rounds of drinks, without a single bolt of lightning striking our table. Bereft of inspiration, we created a to-do list and ordered dessert.

First and foremost, since Big Ben hasn’t set foot in Nevermore for nearly a year and none of us know what he knows about current events inside Nevermore – we’re going to make sure he knows. 

(On reflection, the extra cocktails might have been a mistake.)

In other words, we’re going to track Big Ben down. 

Since I’m the only one who owns a real beef with Little Ben, even if it’s a bit late in the day to take umbrage at my pink slip, I’ll raise the least suspicion should Little Ben get wind of our attempts (plus he can’t fire me again). So Ira’s going to drop a list by Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s house of every phone number, address, hotel, motel, and haunt in New Mexico Big Ben’s ever included in a memo, email, or mentioned in passing.

Hopefully, I’ll hit the jackpot with one of them. 

The scheme makes me feel prickly inside, as it smacks of tattling, but I couldn’t (and still haven’t) come up with a superior alternative.

Speaking of prickly situations, since Leo’s perched at the heart of Nevermore’s grapevine and my Ms. Hettie theory fell through, I requested he ferret out the name of Little Ben’s anonymous source for me. 

Without admitting to playing any part in the farce, I gave Leo every scrap of data in my possession about the mysterious tipster who alerted Little Ben the night of The Brace Affair. (Aka the night Ira’s groundskeepers chased us all over Nevermore.) Explaining my request away as another nebulously linked hinky feeling event in need of an answer – I think Ira bought it.

I was thrilled when our slices apple pie, featuring a very melty piece of cheddar cheese on top, arrived tableside at that moment, completely derailing our conversation off the topic of trespassing pirates…After our initial bite of pie, we hammered out a few other details; don’t risk your job looking for answers; don’t talk to anyone attached to Nevermore about our suspicions, and no, I will not refer to you as 006-&-a-half. Even if you knit a suitable hat. 

But all too soon, the cheese, alcohol, and sugar caught up with us.

(Btw, leaving the Rare Records Room is nearly as complicated as entering –  I exited two doors down behind the florist’s shop.

While listening to the peppy hoot of an owl, I picked up my phone off the nightstand, found Big Ben’s number, and hit dial. My ears were immediately assaulted by three ascending tones and an automated message, “I’m sorry, the number you have entered has been temporarily disconnected, changed, or is no longer in service. If you feel you’ve reached this recording in error…” 

Giving up on my phone and sleep, I heaved myself out of bed, pulled on a pair of well-loved pants and an old t-shirt then padded down to the kitchen. I might not know what’s happening to Nevermore or how to fix it, but at least, I know what my next step is.

I need to bake a cake.

2.20.a Hey Mr. Sandman, Why Has Thou Forsaken me?

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Turning over onto my side, snuggling further under the covers, I gazed past Aunt Pearl’s second-best lace curtains at the moon. I wonder who first posited it was made of Swiss cheese. A clever cheesemonger? It’s a wonder some adman along the way didn’t rename it moon cheese, to sell a few more slices…Thank heavens, the lovely chef at the Rare Records Room didn’t sprinkle any moon cheese into my divine dish of ooey-gooey golden goodness. Because whichever name that white waxy cheese goes by, it’s not for me…I still can’t believe Ira’s a member of the Rare Records Room. How he convinced them to cater part of Wood’s party for me, I’ll never know. 

Speaking of unexpected surprises, how can a man his age pull off puppy dog eyes? 

Well crap. 

Flopping onto my back, staring at the shadows dancing across the ceiling, my thoughts flung me from the precipice of sleep. Finishing the job off properly, I unpacked tonight’s dinner conversation from memory for reexamination. (Though technically it’s three am so it’s yesterday’s dinner conversation.)

Thanks only to Ira’s foresight in choosing a discrete dining table, Leo’s blurted statement of doom wasn’t broadcasted across the entire speakeasy. 

Ira (quietly clearing his throat): “Not rotten so much as peculiar. Which is why I chose the Rare Record’s Room for dinner and why Leo’s here. We’ve been comparing notes about Nevermore, and we’re concerned…So we called you.”

Tracing patterns in the condensation on my glass, I waited for either man to continue.

Ira: “Did you hear about my promotion?”

Me (startled): “Promotion? That’s not possible.”

Ira (looking me in the eye): “Be that as it may, I’m now the Head of Facilities and Maintenance. Little Ben gave Gavin my old job title.”

Me: “Did your duties change? Or Gavin’s?”

Ira (shaking his head): “Mine no. Gavin’s, yes. He’s now required to attend meetings I’ve been politely rebuffed from, despite being his supervisor.”

Leo (interjecting): “Which is weird, because they’re listed as Board of Managers meetings on the calendar.”

Me (wracking my brain): “Nevermore’s never had a board of anything since I’ve been there….Did you ask Gavin about them?”

Leo (chiming in while Ira nodded): “From what I’ve gathered, every member signed a non-disclosure agreement, with some steep penalties if violated.”

Me: “So he’s afraid of losing his job.”

Leo: “Among other things, and with the baby on the way, he can’t risk it.”

Ira & I (in unison): “Larissa’s pregnant?”

Leo (grinning): “Yup, just announced it this morning.” 

In unconscious synchronicity, we toasted the happy couple – they’d been trying for a while now. (It also allowed me to polish off my first custom marionberry infused cocktail, which packed quite a wallop and is the reason why I’m currently enjoying the comforts of Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s guest room. Uncle came and fetched me after I’d called to say I was a bit too buzzed to bus home).

Me (shaking my head): “So, besides Gavin, who else is on this Board of Managers?”

Leo: “Little Ben, of course, and the other department heads? I’m not one-hundred percent sure. They always meet before anyone’s scheduled to come in.”

Ira (gripping his drink): “I’ve never sat on a board for Nevermore either. However, back when I first started, I believe my predecessor took part in one right after Big Ben’s mother past away. But I’d just met my future Missus, and it was above my pay grade, so I didn’t pay it much attention…”

Me (exhaling slowly): “I wonder if the Nevermore Conventions could provide some clarification…What?”

Ira (exchanging glances with Leo): “That leads us to our other oddity, neither Leo or I can find a copy of the Conventions. Mine’s vanished into thin air. And I’ve turned both my office and the maintenance building upside down looking for it.”

Leo: “Sarah, Lottie, Nathaniel, and Little Ben’s copies are all missing from their bookshelves as well.”

Ira: “We were hoping you still had the Caretaker’s copy.”

Me (trying to visualize my bookcases): “Huh. Now that you mention it, I don’t recall running across recently…”

Both men looked crestfallen at my negative.

Me (slowly): “But I might know someone who could find me a copy.”

Leo (eyes shining): “So does that mean you’ll help us?”

2.19.b We Are Programmed To Receive…

2.19 1:2 pic my surreptiscious snap of the Rare Records RoomDressed in a well-loved Eagles t-shirt, jeans just this side of threadbare, purple kicks, and a Cheshire Cat grin the (new) Doorman held it open and stepped aside, “Please come in. If I can steal those keys from you?” Handing him the ring, I moved to the left (heels against the edge of the fabled postage-stamp-sized stage – squee!) and watched him close & relock the door – which incidentally is obfuscated on both sides. 

Tumblers pivoted, and keys pocketed. His mischievous smile returned, “If you could follow me, Ms. Arden.” 

Falling in step, I attempted to casually scan the room, which proved difficult due to the towering blind spot created by my guide’s broad shoulders and the narrowness of the room. Unwilling to hyperextend my neck trying to gain a comprehensive look around him, I settled for a few sideways sneak peeks at the other patrons, who returned my looks with curious glances of their own. 

In a flash, my escort was gesturing towards the right half-moon booth in the back of the speakeasy. Pausing for a moment before taking a seat, I caught my first panoramic view at the Rare Records Room and… 

…Holy Cats Batman!

Gold records arranged like dragon scales decorated every square inch of the walls not occupied by long back leather bench seats or the bar. Oh man, and the bar. The bar is a thing of beauty. A counterpoint to the modern feel of the rest of the room, the swirls and whorls of the art deco design, when combined by the eye, created a dragon curled possessively around his horde. Unlike Smaug’s golden trove, this dragon guards sixty feet of glowing liquor bottles – twelve rows deep (without a single repeat, I’m assured). Golden light, emitted from three dusty brass and crystal chandeliers, dappled the entire establishment (the dust would drive Aunt Pearl crazy, but it adds to the overall atmosphere of the joint).

Ira’s delighted voice recalled me to reality before my gaping mouth caught any flies. “Good evening Phoebe. I take it you’ve never eaten here before?” 

Me (snapping my jaw shut): “What gave it away?”

Ira (eyes crinkling): “First-timers are always struck with the same look.”

Me: “Do the rumors do justice to the mac’n’cheese?”

Ira (slow smile spreading across his face): “No.”

Me (returning his smile): “Then prepare yourself to see that expression again…”

Ira (chuckling): “Looking forward to it.”

Diverting our conversation, my guide reappeared at the periphery of our table.

My Guide: “Would you like your drinks now or wait for the last member of your party to arrive?”

Ira: “We’ll wait, he won’t be long.”

Heart sinking into the leather cushions I fussed with my cutlery, an audience of any kind would curtail me from asking virtually every question on my list (and yes, I’d written them down – so I wouldn’t forget one under the influence of cheese). 

Sidetracking me from my wilty feelings My Guide, after ascertaining this was my first visit, started quizzing me. First up? My favorite & least favorite flavors, cheeses, pastas, flowers, colors, and allergies. Then he inquired after my fondest & saddest memory, best friend and three things I couldn’t live without. Finally, to round out the twenty-questions session, he asked me to name something, anything, I hated. 

After he departed, I wasn’t sure if I’d just finished a creepy stalker quiz, psychological evaluation, or both. 

Taking a sip of water, I was saved from trying to recollect my place in the conversation by the arrival of the last member of our party (and apparently I wasn’t the only one with Hogwarts on my mind).

Leo (wearing a red and gold Weasley inspired sweater & grin): “Evening Ira, Boss….Did you just get The Grilling?”

Well, that’s all the confirmation I’ll ever need to prove I’ll never make it on the professional poker circuit.

Scooching over so Leo could take a seat, we were saved from an awkward pause by both the rituals of polite conversation and then by My Guide’s timely arrival with a tray of one-of-a-kind cocktails tailored to our tastes. He also reassured us our dinners were bubbling away in the oven as we spoke.

(If it’s half as good as this marionberry vodka drink, I will be spoiled for any other mac’n’cheese for all eternity.)

Realizing my companion’s concoctions remained untouched, I lowered my glass, bouncing my gaze between the two men, both of whom appeared unexpectedly uncomfortable. Unsure of the root cause, I rode the pause, waiting for one of them to speak (with the barest flutter of butterfly wings starting in my stomach).

Leo (blurting): “Something’s rotten in Nevermore, and we don’t know what to do.”

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