(Okay, so Big Ben and Bill both helped Nevermore – but I’m still tempted to tell them to take a long walk off a short pier!)
Puffed up and ruffled, a red-faced Little Ben shot up from his chair. Unfortunately, because he was sitting between Big Ben and me, he was hemmed in. Rotating in the postage-stamp-sized gap between our knees, Little Ben turned towards the grate and chucked a hunk of wood into the fire – sending sparks and ash up the chimney and onto the hearth. After stomping the smoldering embers out, he rounded on me.
“I’m not a sucker.”
“I agree, you’re not.” Watching him pick up his rum and slug it all in one swallow, I regretted prompting him to refill it. “However, Sarah used her years of experience and her position of trust to manipulate you. While Josie used her web of friends and her job at Western Mutual to shepherd you into the impossible choice we now have to make.”
Rubbing a hand across his face, Little Ben set his empty glass on the mantle and segued slightly off-topic. “Mr. Ikeda didn’t change his mind?”
Sighing, I shook my head. “No….” Before I could elaborate or broach the subject of sacrificing Sunny Valley Farm, thus piling worse news on top of bad, the low report of a cork being removed from a bottle broke into our strained conversation. Reminding us of the third person sitting in the half-moon before the fire.
“I’m assuming you two are talking about the loan call?” Pausing for a second, to glance between us, Big Ben returned to tilting the bottle over his glass at our nods. “Bill rescinded it this afternoon.”
Sinking unceremoniously onto the hearth, Little Ben’s eyes were more than a little moist at the news. “I..I..I…thank…” The rest of Little Ben’s sputtering remarks were drowned as the ire I banked earlier boiled over – again.
“What the fork man, were you waiting for the perfect dramatic moment to tell us?” Skewering Big Ben, who looked neither sheepish nor apologetic, to his chair with my patented schoolmarm look. (Which unfortunately isn’t very potent since I’ve never stepped foot in a classroom to teach. Though it has been known to stop rambunctious toddlers in their tracks.)
I finished off my brief tirade strong…kinda.
Thru narrow eyes, I thought I detected a small smile decorating Big Ben’s face, but the rim of his rum glass obscured too much of his mouth to be sure, and by the time he lowered it again there wasn’t a trace of amusement to be found on his countenance. So I let it slide. (Plus, vacillating between so many emotions over such a short time, the rum and lack of sleep, was wearing me out.)
“Bill Ikeda and I’ve known each other for years, he called me right after you left with the news.”
“He knew before I left his house Nevermore was safe?”
At my not so quiet grumbling, Big Ben did crack a smile. “How carefully did you read those deeds and leases from my safe?”
Starting to seething a bit, I shrugged. “Mr. John Dupree had gone home by the time Beatrice and Ira figured out what they were looking at, so we did the best we could….”
“Bill couldn’t speak to you about Western Mutual’s lease because your name isn’t on it. He did try to give you a hint…” Reading Little Ben’s apologetic look, he shot my way correctly (he’d pushed me into going Mr. Ikeda’s alone, afraid he’d mess up the meeting), Big Ben continued. “…It wouldn’t have mattered if you’d gone with her Junior. The leases you found aren’t part of Nevermore’s assets. They’re mine alone.”
Understanding finally dawning, my churning downgraded to a simmer. “…And Mr. Ikeda couldn’t tell me he rescinded the loan call because my name wasn’t on the papers. But why did he do it? Not that I’m complaining mind you…And, better question, how the fork did he call you? All I’ve been getting, for months now, is that stupid out of service recording.”
“He has faith in Nevermore, he used his phone, and I replace my cell this morning. Oh, and he wanted me to remind you, you forgot your cake carrier at his house….But back to the topic at hand…” Blinking at Big Ben, I tried to follow the conversational u-turn, at my wide-eyed frown, he gave me a hint. “…The con?”
“Oh, yeah, that.” Holding out my glass for another splash of rum, I tried to refocus (fully aware the alcohol wouldn’t help – but needing a moment). “I’m sorry, Ben, parts of this are going to sound harsh…”
Rolling his shoulders, Little Ben gave me an unhappy smile. “Don’t worry about it, just pretend I’m a fly on the wall.”
Cracking my neck, I started with clearing up a curious element before plunging directly into the heart of the racket run on him. “Ben, did you know the Provisional Proprietor isn’t allowed to sit on the Board of Managers?”
Shrugging, Little Ben dropped his hands helplessly onto his knees. “No, but Nathaniel never said anything about it, so I figured it was fine.”
Leaning forward, Big Ben, tilted his head. “Why didn’t you consult the Conventions? Like I asked you to…”
“I tried, but I couldn’t figure out where your copy was.” Holding up my hand, I forestalled the rhubarb brewing between the two. “And that was their first move, creating a vacuum of knowledge among the members of the Board.”
“What was the second?”
It took longer than I liked, but I finally figured out their game.
The whole con rested on Sarah’s ability to control the Board of Managers, which meant they needed a guaranteed majority, so their first order of business was refashioning it to suit their purposes. Josie’s talent for spotting avarice in others didn’t fail her in this quest, and neither did Nathaniel. By arranging for Nathaniel’s wife to receive that prestigious grant, Josie bought Nathaniel’s vote. They also purchased his silence, which allowed them to install you as a part of the Board and divide me from Nevermore.
Then Sarah convinced you to give Ira a paper promotion to prevent him from grounding your ambitions – as they needed your dreams for Nevermore to flow forth unchecked.
The for-sale-sign planted on the edge of the MacGregor’s farm just after Sarah gave you Big Ben’s letter proved serendipitous. By persuading you to pay cash, they – in one fell swoop – drained a fair chunk of Nevermore’s savings. Once you started working on the new Sunny Valley Farm expansion, I’m assuming Sarah steered you towards renovating Nevermore proper. Already in for a penny, you applied for the loan.
Unfortunately, because you’re a big picture person and trusted Sarah – you didn’t see her coaxing you into overextending Nevermore and into conflict with the Naturalists and the Historical Society.
This is where Josie began piling on the pressure.
First, she used, asked, bribed members inside the Rye’s Rose Club and the University’s Herbarium & Botanical Gardens to condemn your plans to rip out the woodlands. Then she cajoled, blackmailed, sweet-talked members of KARB and ‘Rise and Shine Rye’ to report the story – and due to their constant coverage, events started to snowball.
Once the protests reached critical mass – Josie brought the crisis to a crescendo by using her position at Western Regional to call the loan immediately due. Whereupon Josie’s father Lucas, Chief Councilman of Rye, swooped in with a proposal, and because Sarah controls the Board, the sale to the city was a sure thing.
I’ve no clue what Sarah gets from all of this, but Josie’s motives are clear, it shows Lucas her political chops by doing to one thing he’s never managed – carve up Nevermore.
Feeling weary, I watched Big Ben nod in understanding, and a ruddy flush creep-up Little Ben’s neck and across his face. “Like I said, there’s a lot I still don’t know, but I’m fairly certain these are the hits.”
With a sly light in his eye, Big Ben leaned towards me. “Okay, so what do you want to do about it?”