Category Archives: Leo

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.” 

2.33.b …The Brownie Stealing Bench

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I’m not sure who my words shocked more Leo, Josie, or I. I’m thinking Leo, only because he nearly spat out his mouthful of beer.

Regarding me cooly for a split second, she shifted her focus back onto a red-faced Leo, who’d swiftly stopped choking and/or coughing, without any further acknowledgement.

Josie (smile a little tight at the edges): “I’ve been struggling to find a perfect gift for KARB’s Programming Director. You probably haven’t heard, as David’s only told a select few, but he’s handing over the reins to my inamorato Julien Dewinter and retiring at the end of next month. I think he’d love your work.”

Is she using selective hearing on me? Seriously? And how ostentatious, inamorato, why not just call Julien her boyfriend?

Leo (returning her smile with a polite one of his own): “Thank-you, but…”

Me (thoughtfully interrupting Leo): “Perhaps a viper is to on the nose. How about a spider? You could go as Arachne, from that story by Ovid, I’m sure Leo could whip up a cobweb mini dress and an appropriate eight-legged hat…”

Easing her left hip against the edge of the table, giving me an excellent view of her backside, Josie continued to pretend I was existentially challenged. 

Well, who’d have thunk it – I do believe I’ve found a fourth solution for dealing with Josie and her ilk – and I owe it all to Ms. Hettie.

Josie (ratcheting up her charm-o-meter): “If you have a moment right now, we could discuss designs and your fee. I’m sure Phoebe won’t mind moving to the bar while we talk business. I believe she’s on excellent terms with the bartender.”

Woot! She just intimated I was a drunk! I wonder which Ms. Hettie would appreciate more; butter cookies or a bottle of bourbon? I feel I ought to repay her for the year of verbal sparring and zinger training I’ve received.

Me (snapping my fingers): “I’ve got it! You should go as a magpie! They’re handsome and thieving, just like you!”

Leo utterly failed to suppress a guffaw. 

Man, how did I miss this? I never once considered needling-her-back as a viable defense! Probably because we were in school and she’d have made my life a misery.

Josie (turning back to me, her tone tetchy): “Are you still bent out of shape over that brownie thing back in junior high? It was over twenty years ago, we’re different people now, let it go. You’ll feel better for it.”

Is she trying to out adult me?

Me (Cheshire smile splitting my face – I let her): “Naw, don’t wanna.”

Ready to take the lumps Josie’s sub-zero stare promised were in the offing, Ruth quadrupled her tip by arriving at our table with our wing order a split second before the icy blast.

Leo (delighted): “Dinner!”

Digging into the baskets, Leo started distributing the sides and dividing the wings equally between our plates – as is our tradition – and successfully diffused the impending sleety squall.

Me: “Sorry, Josie. I’d ask you to join, but we only ordered enough for the two of us tonight.”

Josie (stiffly): “No problem, I’m a vegan anyway.”

Me (quizzically): “Really?” 

Josie: “Yes, really, eating animals is beastly.”

Me (shrugging): “How very ethical of you.”

Josie (addressing Leo): “Can I contact you about the commission early next week?” 

Leo (setting down his barbecue-gochujang coated drumette): “Unfortunately, I’m not taking on any new projects at the moment.”

Josie: “Are you sure? A vintage microphone hat would be perfect, and I’d pay triple since I know its short notice.”

Leo: “Sorry, Josie, Phoebe’s hat is the last custom order I’m doing for a while.”

Josie (letting loose a healthy sigh, then smiling): “I suppose it’s for the best. I’m not sure Julien would be comfortable giving his former boss something cute. Well, it was nice running into you, Phoebe, and a pleasure to meet you, Leo. I’ll see you both around.”

Dear lords above and below, I hope not.

After delivering her parting shot, using a tone that would make even Jack Frost shiver, she turned on her heel to leave – without waiting for our response. Unable to resist needling her one last time, I decided to impart a helpful laundry tip Aunt Pearl gave me soon after I discovered this place.

Me: “Hey Josie, you’ll want to run the front of your blouse and the bottom edge of your cuff under cold water, then soak it in liquid detergent for a couple of days before you wash it.”

Without sparing a glance at the tell-tale reddish specks splattered across her shirt, she turned towards my voice, her mouth compressed in a flat rigid line.

Josie (icicles hanging off the word): “Why?”

Me: “It’s the only way to keep that buffalo sauce stain from setting.”

Wow, I do believe Josie Reville just flipped me off.

Ms. Hettie’s definitely deserves both a bottle of bourbon and several dozen butter cookies.

Leo (regarding me with amusement): “Does the Hinge serve buffalo sauce on anything other than their chicken wings?”

Me (grinning): “No, no, they do not.”

2.33.a Fan-forking-tastic…

(Squiddy is so big I couldn’t fit him in a single frame! So here he is in pieces!)

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. 

The Brownie Stealing Bench.

Man, I thought Josie Reville pulled an Ingrid Bergman (in Casablanca) and put Rye in her rearview mirror forever. 

Blotting out the riptide of after-images threatening to suck me under (Ogden Nash Middle School’s cafeteria, cotton candy pink nails against the rich brown of the pilfered brownie, Mrs. Sable’s index finger wagging in front of my nose). I used the split second before Josie descended on us to warn Leo instead.

Me (in a low tone): “No matter what, ignore her jibes and keep your answers short.”

Leo (arching an eyebrow): “Okay, Boss.”

Josie: I thought it was you when you walk in, but the tie and the tailored suit and all that black threw me! But when you pull that hat on, I knew! You’re the only person I know fearless enough to wear something that makes you look like a long lost cousin of the Coneheads!

Now you might be wondering: How do you deal with a Brownie Stealing Bench who holds Iago, Don John, and Lady Tremaine (Cinderella’s evil stepmother) in high esteem. Without spiraling into bad manners, worse language, and a series of rude gestures.

Well, over the six years of our enforced association, otherwise known as school, I fine-tuned three simple techniques to move along any conversation without descending into the aforementioned churlish behavior. Fun Fact: Pointing out the backhanded nature of her ‘compliments’ will invariably lead to a derisive laugh, hair flip, and assurances you merely ‘misunderstood’ her remark – and you end up giving her the bird anyways. 

Technique One: kill her with kindness. Slather on a smile and praise her on whatever triumph she will inevitably boast about during your chat. Helpful Hint: Taking the technique’s name literally gives school officials all the wrong ideas. So avoid naming any nearby fork, knife, pen, pencil, scissors, or other stabby object Kindness and brandishing it.

Gambit Number Two: the one I’d advised Leo to take, employ selective hearing. Simply stop listening after the superficial compliment is delivered. Warning! Sticking your fingers in your ears and humming a little ditty to block out the predestined dig is not recommended.

Third (and often the best option of the lot): take it on the chin. Deprived of a visible and/or volatile reaction, she’ll get bored and move onto more fertile ground. Originally called playing possum. This option was revised after pretending to croak every time Josie entered my sphere resulted in another month of mandatory sessions with the school counselor and Aunt Pearl despairing over dinner about my sense of humor. Uncle, however, bought me an ice-cream cone, took me for a walk in Nevermore, and helped me refine my methods.  

Taking a deep breath – deciding on a twofer – I plastered on a nearly genuine smile and tilted my chin towards her.

Me: “Well, Dan Ackroyd is a comedy legend. What brings you back to Rye Josie? Vacation?”

Please be a short one.

Josie (modesty): “Work, actually. Western Regional Bank appointed me as their Chief Lending Officer, and since corporate is headquartered in Rye, I moved back home.”

Me: “Congrats.”

Drat.

Josie (beaming): “You too! I heard you got a new job as well! I think FLYT’s a perfect fit for you. I know how much you love taking the Piggy Bank out for a spin.”

Dear lords above and below, I’d forgotten her nickname for the Princess.

Leo (the beer bottle hovering halfway to his lips): “Piggy Bank?”

Swiping my own and thankfully alcoholic drink off the table, I took a deep draw and waited for Josie to deliver the punchline.

Josie (letting out a merry laugh): “Phoebe’s car and a piggy bank are both pink, adorable, and when you smash them – worth the same amount.”

Man, I’d have been happy never to see the whites of her eyes again.

Leo shot me an apologetic look over the top of his brown bottle.

Josie (giving Leo a sweet smile): “Forgive my rudeness, Phoebe, and I have known each other forever! Hi, I’m Josie Reville.”

Leo: “Leo Wasinski.”

During Josie’s introductions, she held out her hand for Leo to shake – Leo picked up his beer instead. Josie, ignoring the slight, dropped her hand and plucked a pretzel out of our bowl instead.

Josie (eyes wide): “Nice to meet you!… Oh, wait, I’m not interrupting a date. Am I?”

Leo (ruminatively): “Not tonight…”

Me (pointing at my head): “He’s delivering my special-order.”

Josie (rewarding Leo with a dazzling smile): “Oh good. Monday’s not traditionally a hot date night, but Phoebe’s always marched to the beat of her own drummer, so I wasn’t sure.”

Regrettably, my remark recentered Josie’s awareness squarely on Squiddy again. Invading my personal bubble, Josie leaned in and rubbed one of Squiddy’s arms between her fingers. 

I managed to restrain myself from swatting her hand away – but only just.

Josie (looking thoughtful): “Though not my style, the craftsmanship of Phoebe’s….hat is excellent. Do you often take commissions?”

Distracted by Ruth, who delivered another two beers to the table (and reassured us our wings were only moments away), the question popped unbidden from my mouth.

Me (smiling my thanks to Ruth): “Why need help channeling your inner viper this Halloween?”

2.32 Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit…

2.32 Berevity is the Soul of whit

For the second time today, I managed to snag my favorite seat in an eatery. Only this time, my backside rested against the vinyl seat of the best booth in my favorite dive in all of Rye. 

Taking in a lung full of the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen of the Rusty Hinge, my stomach reminded my mind the early lunch with Mrs. Lebondowsky was now a distant memory — gastronomically speaking. As today was Pie Day, or what the unenlightened call Monday, the sweet scent of apple and pumpkin spice swirled through the entire joint and proved impossible to resist. 

Ordering a cup of coffee and a slice of pumpkin, I basked in the warm glow of the neon beer signs and the musical lures of the surrounding pinball machines for a few minutes (in point of fact, I was borderline giddy at being anywhere but inside the Lavender Lady this evening). 

Tossing my chauffeur’s cap on the red vinyl stretching out next to me, I stopped reveling and took advantage of the forty minutes I’d stitched into my day. (Rather than heading home to change out of my uniform after my shift, I motored straight to the Rusty Hinge.)

Extracting my phone from my pack, I entered my code, tapped my recently dialed icon, chose the third number from the top, and dialed. Whilst listening to the ringing on the line, I pulled a pack of index cards and a pen out of my bag, then hung up a split second after the anticipated and ear grating first note of the out-of-service recording started playing.

Setting my phone aside, I slit open the pack of cards with my thumbnail, removed one, and started writing the message Mrs. Lebondowsky and I had crafted together over teriyaki.

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Just enough information to hopefully pique his interest and pithy enough to catch the eye. 

I’d managed to work my way thru a third of the pack, two cups of coffee, and my generous piece of pie before Leo joined me.

Leo (taking off his coat): “Hey boss, studying for an exam?”

Me: “Nope. Just part of my highly strategic plan to find Big Ben.”

Leo (flipping over and reading the top card of the completed stack): “Highly strategic? Wait, is this your real number?”

Me (finishing off the card I was working on): “No, I bought a burner phone…”

My explanation trailed off when Ruth, who’d apparently been keeping an eye out, popped by to take our order. Two local beers, three baskets of wings coated in tongue scorching sauces to split between us (maple-chipotle, sour-cherry habanero & lime, and gochujang-barbecue). 

We’d shared wings once or twice before. 

After Ruth moseyed out of earshot, Leo and I started speaking at the same time – I let him go first. So while I stowed my project away in my pack, he gingerly extracted a puffy plastic sack from his knitting bag.

Leo: “So what’s the grand plan?”

Me: “I know someone who knows someone who knows someone else, who put me in touch with a citizen of Silver City, and they’ve agreed to help us find Big Ben.” 

No need to out Mrs. Lebondowsky as my source and Tavi Blume as my Silver City Operative. 

(BTW – Tavi is an absolute stitch. As an avid reader of vintage gumshoe detective novels, Dashiell Hammett, in particular. Tavi admitted to yearning for an excuse to abscond with her husband’s fedora. Combine this craving with week four (of nine) of her vacation? Tavi was absolutely thrilled to help us track Big Ben down – after we explained the who, the what and the why behind our inquiry.

The fact our favor also allowed her to evade cleaning her classroom’s beakers, test tubes and graduated cylinders for another week might also have enlivened her enthusiasm for the endeavor. 

Her one condition? I refer to her as my Silver City Operative.)

Leo: “Sounds, Byzantine.”

Me (leaning back against the seat): “Not really, it essentially boils down to my Operative papering Silver City with this message. Plus, the personal ads, I’m placing in the two local papers and the University’s.”

Leo (arching an eyebrow): “Your Operative?”

Me (grinning): “My Silver City Operative to be specific, we decided code names made it more fun, I’m Ms. Pinkerton…Is that my hat?”

Leo (his eyes twinkling and holding it up): “What do you think?” 

Me (reaching for it): “It’s perfect!”

Remember when my five cousins and their significant others all failed to place a bet on me in the Black-And-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool?

Well, I decided to commemorate their insulting lack of faith in my ability to ruin one of Aunt Pearl’s mortifying family photos with an exceptional hat. A chapeau so extraordinary unforgettable none of my cousins will neglect to consider placing a wager on me again!

So what one-of-a-kind confection did I commission Leo to crochet for me? 

Squiddy! 

The giant land squid concocted on the Island of Dr. Cousteau that I claimed dyed me purple the night I showed up on Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s doorstep covered in a bruise of epic proportions. 

Me (pulling it on, I laughed as Squiddy’s arms tickled my ears): “It fits perfectly! I love it! Thank you!”

A genteel voice called out: Phoebe? Phoebe Arden, is that you? 

Well crap, where’d she come from?

2.31 Ebenezer’s Teriyaki

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Helpful Hint: One of the easiest ways of raising suspicion is by acting suspiciously. 

Now I know this seems self-evident. But how do you think so many kids get caught with their hand in the cookie jar? So rather than furtively tiptoeing out the basement of the Historical Society building. I marched bold as brass back up the maintenance stairs thru the low gate and out the front doors. (After availing myself of some soap and water to wash the  grime off my hands and face.) 

No one looked askance at me once.

(Okay, so no one actually witnessed my exit – but my theory’s still sound.)

On the upside, I beat Mrs. Lebondowsky back to the Princess, so I had a few minutes of peace to piece together what I saw inside with what I knew of Little Ben’s ultimate rebranding plans…My quiet time lasted precisely thirty-seconds after I settled into the driver’s seat as my phone, once again, startled me out of my revere by ringing.

Me: “Leo? Has something happened in the last seven minutes I should know about?”

Leo: “No, I just forgot to tell you I finished your order last night.”

Me (doing a happy dance in the seat): “Woot!”

Leo (chuckling): “Meet you at the Rusty Hinge for wings and a beer?”

Me: “Great! Eight?”

Leo: “Sounds like a plan.”

Me (recalling Beatrice’s earlier intelligence): “Oh! Remind me to tell you about the new info about who might have ratted the pirates out to Little Ben…”

On that note, plans firmly fixed, Leo and I hung up. Which proved fortuitous as Mrs. Lebondowsky was puffing her way up the incline towards the Princess. Turning over the engine in anticipation of her arrival, I idled in place. Then waited until she’d sorted herself out in the passenger’s seat before using the roundabout at the end of the drive and headed towards Nevermore’s exit.

Uncharacteristically quiet (after our hellos), Mrs. Lebondowsky continued to fuss in her seat, tweaking the charm bracelet on her wrist, rearranging her handbag and conducting micro-adjustments on her seat belt.

Me (casting her a sideways look): “Everything alright, Mrs. Lebondowsky? Did you get the low down on last Friday’s meeting?”

Mrs. Lebondowsky (sighing): “I did dear thank you for asking. But I think my Dear Frank might be right, finding things out isn’t always for the best…”

Me (steering the Princess onto Ash Street): “Do these things you speak of connect with the stockpiled camping gear and supplies I saw inside?”

Mrs. Lebondowsky (letting out a short gasp): “Milt asked me not to discuss it…”

Me (glancing her way as the traffic slowed for the stoplight): “It’s okay, Mrs. Lebondowsky, I’m not asking you to.”

Mrs. Lebondowsky (floundering): “Oh, okay. It’s just..Milt thought…”

Me (aiming a shot in the dark): “That because I used to be Nevermore’s Caretaker, I might rat the Club out to Little Ben?”

Mrs. Lebondowsky (shifting in her seat): “Well, I tried telling him you’re better than that, but he didn’t want to listen…”

Me: “It’s okay, Mrs. Lebondowsky, I get it.” 

(Milt Fielding is Talia’s second in command, and I’m not surprised he cast aspersions on my character – he’s still bent out of shape because I rejected his ten-point plan to make Nevermore greener. Though how he believed I would retire Nevermore’s fleet of hearses en masse in favor of custom-built motorcycle sidecars, I will never know – and that was the tamest of his ideas.) 

Mrs. Lebondowsky (settling in her seat): “Thank you, dear.”

Me: “But I have to ask, are you happy with all their plans?”

Mrs. Lebondowsky (giving me a long look before answering): “I imagine they believe they are…a necessary evil.” 

Me (whipping a u-turn): “How do you feel about Teriyaki?”

Mrs. Lebondowsky (startled at my conversational and actual u-turn): “It’s tastes good?”

Me: “Fantastic.”

Pulling the Princess between the faded white lines of a parking slot four minutes later, I motioned Mrs. Lebondowsky to follow me inside my absolute favorite mom & pop teriyaki joint in Rye. 

They’d helped me keep body and soul together when I first moved out of Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s house and discovered my cooking skills were subpar at best. (Yes, I realize Aunt Pearl’s a Home Ec. teacher – but I didn’t pay much attention to the culinary sciences until I needed to feed myself regularly.) 

The owners of the incongruously named Ebenezer’s Teriyaki (who knew me on sight – as I’ve been darkening their door for the past twenty years) gave me a wide grin when I walked in and gestured us to take any table we liked. As we were a bit early for the lunch rush, we were spoiled for choice, so I selected my favorite seat by the window. Akiko called my usual order back to her husband (I don’t vary it very often) and bustled over to our table with a pot of tea, two cups, one menu, and a smile. A slightly breathless Mrs. Lebondowsky ordered the lunch special and then gave me a quizzical look after Akiko went back to help her husband with our meals.

Mrs. Lebondowsky (pouring us both tea): “Something on your mind, dear?” 

Me (unwrapping my chopsticks): “Earlier today, I had a bright idea, and after what we just saw back there, I think we might both benefit from it. However, it will require a little discretion on your part.”

Mrs. Lebondowsky (leaning forward): “Yes?”

Me (sipping my tea): “Do you happen to know anyone in Silver City, New Mexico?”

2.30 Illations

(Yeah, the ‘Prepare 4 Battle!’ isn’t worrisome at all…)

Now it didn’t take the keen mind of Sherlock Holmes to deduce that neither Aarti or Talia had intended to give me a glimpse inside their new war room. So during the ensuing and extremely awkward conversation (resulting from Aarti’s panicky shout), she and Talia pretended the library was still populated by books. While I allowed them to believe I was deaf, dumb, and blind.

Plus, I didn’t need to inquire after the picket signs or the flyers – their meaning is obvious.

However, it was Aarti and Talia’s conspicuous concern with distracting me from the mismatched mass of outdoor equipment, rather than the profusion of protest paraphernalia, that raised a red flag.

Indeed Aarti was so focused on drawing my attention away from the left side of the space, she offered to lend me the Wynter file to peruse it at my leisure. As I’m not a card-carrying member of the Historical Society, this was odd. Non-members don’t enjoy check-out privileges. Even as Nevermore’s Caretaker, they’d never allowed me to wander off with so much as a monograph – let alone a coveted collection of ephemera regarding Rye’s most notorious unsolved murder.

So I took her up on her offer.

Not for any real desire to pursue the subject further, as I agreed with Aarti’s assessment of Wynter’s ongoing legacy. But because accepting it allowed me to escape her and Talia’s watchful gazes and figure out why my brief peek at couple dozed chemical toilets caused them so much distress.

All of which, I hope, explains how I came to be lurking in a dusty storeroom surveilling my neighbors, acquaintances, and a few strangers. While idly comparing the merits of murder by mortification to Wednesday Addams’ scheme to scare her suitors to death.

Either way, both modus operandi sounded like a lot of work.

Deciding I’d seen enough and taken my speculation far enough, I crept cautiously to the door. Pulling it ajar, I took a quick peek, then slipped out and thru the door across the hall. After flipping the lock and turning on the lights, I made sure both stalls were empty before dropping my pack and Wynter’s file on the floor.

Leaning against the cool tile wall, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and counted to twelve before releasing it.

Explaining away a trip to the bathroom is far simpler than defending your presence in a darkened room whilst standing on a stepladder with murderous intentions spying on people who are eager to avoid your notice. 

Taking another measured breath, I calmly considered what I’d seen. 

Tossing aside the absurd notion, they were following the CDC’s Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness Guidelines. I came up with three possible theories as to why a human chain, comprised of Historical Society and Naturalist Club members, are currently shifting a trailer-truck full of water bottles, propane canisters, and freeze-dried food into the building next door. 

Since I had ten minutes to spare until I needed to meet Mrs. Lebondowsky at the Princess, I called the only Naturalist I thought might answer my questions truthfully.

Me (whispering): “Leo!”

Leo (puzzlement clear): “Boss?”

Me: “Yes. Are you alone?”

Leo (lowering his voice): “Yes. Why are we whispering?”

Me (waving my hand despite him not being able to see me): “Not important. Leo is the Naturalist Club sponsoring an equipment or food drive anytime soon?”

Leo: “Nope, we hold those in November…”

Me: “Are you guys gearing up for a colossal sized hiking or camping event?” 

Leo (I could feel his frown across the line): “No, nothing big’s happening until late August…why?”

Me (rubbing my throbbing temples): “Can you think of any reason why the Club would be hauling a tractor-trailer’s worth of food, water, and propane into their building? Or why the Historical Society has enough camping equipment to outfit the entire graduating class of Rye High in their library, but not a single tent?”

Leo: “Wait, where are you?”

Me: “You don’t want to know.”

Leo: “I really think I do.”

Me (scrunching my eyes closed): “Leo, please! Can you think of any reason?”

Leo: “No, there’s nothing on the calendar that would account for the amount of hardware you’re describing. Though….”

Leo went so quiet, for so long, I checked my phone to make sure the call hadn’t dropped.

Me: “Leo?”

Leo (speaking slowly): “Last Friday, Talia called me out of the blue before breakfast. She requested that I recuse myself from the board temporarily and stop attending meetings for a while…She said she didn’t want to put me in the position of choosing between the Club and my job if things got ugly with Little Ben.”

Me: “I saw picket signs and flyers upstairs.”

Leo (sounding stunned): “You don’t think they’ll go that far, do you? Protests I get, but occupying both buildings?” 

Me (opening my eyes and staring at the ceiling): “I think they’re calling it a sit-in.”

Leo: “That’s not better.”

Me: “Sit tight. If anyone asks, tell them what you told me, Talia asked you to leave the Club, and you don’t know anything.”

Leo: “Crap.”

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?”

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