Category Archives: Phoebe

2.66 The Fool

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Half expecting to find Orin smirking at me, despite my reassurances that his presence here was unnecessary. It took a long second for the significance of the shock of snow-white hair above a pair of shoulders draped in a deep forest green suit coat to register.

Shirt.

Shirt. Shirt. Shirt!

What the forking hall is Abraham’s Errant doing in Sarah’s family’s front room? 

Keeping half an ear out for Sarah’s inevitable return, I eased inside, training my eyes on the Errant’s lean figure, looking for a flicker of movement indicating he knew I was drawing closer. 

He didn’t twitch. 

Skirting around the central coffee table, wary of the sprawling (mid-contest) Monopoly game laying on its surface and teetering along the edge, it only took a handful of seconds to reach the suited up Errant standing before the cold brick fireplace. Wrapping my fingers around his wrist immediately transformed his statuesque countenance into a struggling mass of elbows and knees intent on breaking my unbreakable grasp.

“Stop.”

Of course, this borderline order didn’t do much (or help in any way), as he continued yanking on his arm while backpedaling away from me.

Trying again, this time aiming for less authoritative and more unruffled, I identified myself in an even voice. “I am the Caretaker of Nevermore, who are you?” 

“Caretaker? Caretaker. Caretaker. Caretaker. Caretaker. Caretaker.” Crooning my title like his favorite song, he immediately stilled.

You know the protracted discordant noise a piano makes when someone depresses the pedal and hits a whole bunch of random keys at the same time? The lingering dissonance of that note is the best way to describe the Vita presently resonating under my grip. 

And if you haven’t guessed – it isn’t a good sign. 

“Yes, I am the Caretaker. Who are you?”

“The Fool. The Fool. The Fool. The Fool.” He sang softly at me.

Fantastic. 

There’s a possibility I could bring him back from the brink. However, if Abraham’s correct and The Fool’s (I’m going with it) the root cause of Rye’s missing Errants – this might be bad – as it might allow him to muster enough Vita to attack someone stronger – and win. On the other hand, it could keep him from syphoning off another Errant’s Vita to stave off Fading and/or stay sane (well saner). Thus allowing me time to find his Origin Point. And technically speaking, I haven’t uncovered anything corroborating Abraham’s claims…

Weaving a delicate thread of my own Vita into The Fool’s, I strove to balance his.

“Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“Help…” The singsong sound cadence belied the naked desperation painting his face.

Not wanting to overwhelm him, I braided a slightly sturdier fiber of Vita in with The Fool’s, bringing it closer to equipoise. “How can I help? What’s your name? Where’s your Origin Point?..” Unfortunately, a series of thumps, bumps, and thuds interrupted my litany of the Six Ws (the foundations of problem-solving). 

“Morticia?”

The Fool, finally able to form full sentences, and sandwiched his desperation into them – did so. “Please, let me go. If I don’t see you with her, I won’t have to tell them about you.” 

Listening to the swish of Sarah’s nylon coat grow closer, waves of panic started rolling off him. Just as he opened his mouth to renew his plea, I released his wrist and watched him sprint from Sarah’s living room.

“Morticia, where did you go?”

“In here.” 

Stepping towards the table, I stared down at the thimble straddling the line between jail and the just visiting square, wondering if I could figure out if The Fool was friend or foe on my own. I still needed to visit Eliza, and Abraham might’ve found out something new since I saw him last…

In the throes of woolgathering, I tuned out Sarah’s entrance into the living room. 

Every Errand and Resident have their geographical limits…It’s possible if I use Eliza’s spot and Sarah’s house as starting points…I’ve done it before…but it sounds like he needs help sooner…Shifting my gaze off the thimble, I slid it up to the apple crate filled with four binders now sitting on the davenport. Or I could keep the only tangible connection I’d found to The Fool, forego my fantasy of firing Sarah and see if I could shrug off enough hurt from the knife she buried in my back to stand her company…

Some days being an adult really sucks.

Breaking the unintended silence with a sigh, I looked Sarah square in the face and gave her the brutal truth. “I don’t know if we can remain friends after all this…”

Eyes shining brightly, Sarah attempted to interrupt. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to save…”

Holding up my hand, I didn’t let the rest of her explanation exit her mouth. “Look, I’m not ready to hear it, any of it, yet. In fact, I’d never really intended to allow you to explain, as I woke up today, thinking I was going to fire you….”

Tipping her head back, Sarah let lose a brittle, bitter laugh. “That’s funny, I’ve been working up the courage to quit for months now.”

Tilting my head at her candid comeback, I was unable to keep my interest out of my voice. “Why didn’t you?” 

Her hesitation before answering spoke volumes. “It’s complicated.”

“I get that.” Taking a deep breath, I stopped dancing around the alligator at my feet. “Okay, here’s the deal, if you don’t want to quit, I’m willing to see if we can function as co-workers…”

“I..I…Really? Are you sure?”

Pausing her, before she accepted and/or her bright eyes spilled over, I finished my offer. “…on two conditions. First and foremost, you’ll be demoted back to an undertaker. Second, until we find a new Chief, you might need to pitch in with some of the paperwork, so we don’t fall behind…Are these terms acceptable to you?”

2.64 Paper Faces On Parade

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(Okay, this isn’t the view from the Proprietor’s Office – but it does a great job of showing the two properties of glass.)

Leaning against the bookcase before the floor to ceiling windows, I watched the golden rays of dawn touch the tips of the trees on the other side of the pane. The shifting mist, rolling below the tree boughs yet just above the blades of grass, would melt away once the sunbeams reached it – but until then, the billowing grey shrouded Nevermore in an eerie haze. Wrapping my arms around my shoulders, I snuggled into the soft folds of my wool sweater and felt a wave of happiness ripple thru me. My elation swelled for a moment as I promised myself a lingering ramble across the grounds, then sadly broke apart upon the jagged rocks of reality when a presumptive rap sounded against the door.

Without waiting for an answer, Sarah strolled purposely into the Proprietor’s office. 

“Ben, I know you don’t want to, but we need to vote on the City’s offer first thing. Once we can show Western Mutual the pending numbers, I’m sure they’ll delay the loan call so the sale can go through…”

Big Ben’s only guidance in dealing with Sarah was to remind me: “You and I both know the Reville’s ability to charm, flatter, and persuade people into performing considerably outside of their natures. So take that into account when you tot up her betrayal against your friendship.”

Remaining still, I shifted my perspective off the vista beyond the glass to the room it reflected. A fair amount of confusion flickered over Sarah’s face at the absences of chaos. Little Ben and Leo finished transferring the pipe-dream-dream-boards, avalanche of papers, and mountains of binders back to Little Ben’s old office about an hour and a half ago – just in time for our first meeting, with Nathaniel.

“Why did you move everything? And where did….” Swiveling her head down the length of the conference table, it didn’t take but a moment for her gaze to work its way over to the desk – and find me standing behind it.

In the split second it took me to turn towards her, she’d jettisoned the shock from her visage and exchanged it for mild curiosity. 

“Hey, Morticia..umm..what are you doing here? We’re getting ready for an important meeting…”

“…and now that you’re here, it can start.” Stepping over to the Proprietor’s desk, I pulled out the captain’s chair and took a seat – then motioned her towards the visitor’s. 

An odd hollow sensation filled my middle as she drew closer, and I realized moonlight flattered her features far more than the fluorescents of the office did. Dark smudges that concealer failed to hide lay beneath her eyes, her suit looked at least two sizes too large for her frame, and her hair appeared positively dull.

Resting her hands on the backs of the twin chairs, Sarah met my gaze across the wide desk. “What are you talking about?”

Leaning forward, I laced my fingers together and rested them atop the blotter. “For starters? We’re not selling to the City Council.”

Sarah stood her ground, despite visibly paling at the pleasantly delivered news. “That’s not your decision to make.”

“Your right, it’s not.” Sarah’s congratulatory smile lasted only a second before I wiped it from her face. “Big Ben made the call last night, dissolved the Board this morning, and rejected the City’s offer about a half-hour ago.”

Licking her lips, Sarah tried hard to contain her reaction to the unraveling of her and Josie’s designs on Nevermore. After giving her a few more heartbeats to process the news, I gestured towards the visitor’s chair again. “Why don’t you sit down, Sarah.”

Accepting my invitation, she perched on the edge of the seat and started absently plucking invisible bits of fluff off her pants. “When did Big Ben get back?…”

My Silver City Operative, Tavi will be chuffed when I tell her her efforts in papering Silver City with three-by-five cards worked. Once Big Ben finally spotted one, on a Swap-or-Sale cork-board in out of the way bait shop, he realized they were everywhere. Then for reasons I’m still not entirely clear on, due to the late hour and some excellent rum, rather than calling the listed number Big Ben caught a red-eye home.

Not that Sarah needs those details. 

“…He made you Caretaker again, I assume…”  

A small smile flared to life on my lips at hearing my title and I united in a sentence again – then died when I looked Sarah in the eye. “Yes, I am. And as Nevermore’s Caretaker, I need you to tell me where you stashed the copies of the Conventions you stole from Ira, Lottie, Big Ben, and I.

Nostrils flaring, her leg started bouncing at speed. “I don’t know what you’re talking….”

Fed up with her, Josie, and their machinations, I stopped her mid-denial with an inflexible tone. “Just don’t. I know you held onto the letter making Little Ben Provisional Proprietor for months. I know how Josie bribed Nathaniel. I know how you both set Little Ben up. So please don’t waste time with denials.”

2.63 A Rum Do…

2.63 a Rum do

(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.

“Phhhffwwiff….Bill!” 

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?”

“Bribery.” 

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?”

2.60 Tea For Two

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Mr. Ikeda regarded me steadily for a full minute before breaking the silence.

“Would you like ginger lemon or brown rice?” 

Jumping slightly at the sound of his voice, my eyes flew up to meet Mr. Ikeda’s. “Um…”

“Tea, would you like ginger lemon or brown rice?”

“Ginger lemon?”

“Good choice.” Pulling a tin out from under his bench, he set it atop with a soft clink. “Now, if you’ll make the hot beverages, I’ll grab some plates and forks for the cake.”

Dizzy at the turn of events, I concentrated on not dribbling hot water onto Mr. Ikeda’s workbench as I rehydrated bits of ginger root, lemon peel, and tea leaves. By the time he rejoined me, I’d already removed the bags from two perfectly steeped mugs of tea, the cover from the cake, and been able to study his HO scale replica in some detail.

Distracted from the discrepancy I’d discovered in the pocket-sized version of Rye, I returned Mr. Ikeda’s genial smile with a wane one of my own when he reentered the room. “Sorry to make you wait, it took longer to figure out where my wife stored the cake knife and server than I’d thought it would. Well, that and I fed the disreputable three an early lunch so we could enjoy our treat…” He let out a low whistle as he looked over the intricate icing, strategically applied powdered sugar and sugar work. “…in peace. That looks too lovely to eat.”

“Thank-you. I wish I could say it’s nothing, but that would be a lie, it took forever to frost.”

Picking the base of the cake carrier up, Mr. Ikeda slowly turned in his hands, taking in the details of the house. “This really is splendid.”

“Well, here’s to hoping it tastes half as good as it looks, one never knows for sure.”

Setting the cake back onto the bench, I declined his silent invitation to perform the honors, so he took up the knife and shaved off two equal measures of gingerbread. Handing me one, Mr. Ikeda set his piece next to his mug of (now) tepid tea and retook his seat. Following his lead, I sat across from him as before. Though I left my plate of cake untouched, as the inscrutability of his expression caused grasshoppers to ricochet uncomfortably about my insides. 

“So tell me, have you decided to terminate just Western Mutual’s lease, or are planning to cancel others as well?”

Taking a deep breath, I answered on the exhale. “We need to terminate all of them. It’s the only way to obtain enough square footage to satisfy the conditions of the loan.”

Nodding to himself for a moment, he gave me an affable but shrewd look. “But you came to me first, hoping I’d rescind the loan call. Correct?”

Firming up my shoulders, I looked the Chief Financial Officer for Western Regional bank squarely in the eye. “I can’t lie, it’s exactly what I’d hoped.”

Initially, Little Ben and I planned to go on bended knee to the bank branch he applied for the loan at – but then Beatrice and Ira found a Hail Mary. 

Stashed in Big Ben’s safe were deeds, with accompanying leases, for various pieces of real estate around Rye. Sifting through the boggling number of rental agreements, which included some of my favorite spots, dives, and joints – we discovered one for the headquarters of Western Regional Bank, signed by their CFO. We decided to appeal to Mr. Ikeda directly, hoping he’d listen and ignore the grand opportunity to acquire the land lying underneath his business’s main building.

Washing down his last bite with a sip of tea, he set aside his empty plate and fork. “I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, I will raise this issue with the appropriate parties tomorrow morning….”

Wetting my lips with a sip of tea, in hopes of banishing my sudden bout of cottonmouth, I tried to clarify his words. “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure what that means exactly.”

Peering over the top rim of his glasses, Mr. Ikeda gave me a sympathetic smile. “It means you are more than welcome to stay and help me build a new house form my miniature, but our discussion on the loan and the bank’s lease are finished.”

A wave of panic washed over me. 

Flipping open my folder, I started scrounging thru the documents. “Please, Mr. Ikeda, hear me out. I’ve nullified all the factors listed in the loan call….” (And let me tell you that was a job of work.) Holding out two sheets of paper, I waited for Mr. Ikeda to take them. When he gave me another kind smile, I returned them to the folder sitting in my lap and summed them up at a pell-mell pace. “….At noon today, the Historical Society and Naturalists issued a press release formally ending their protests…”

Cutting in, as my lungs demanded air, the unflappable Mr. Ikeda stuck to his guns. “Exemplary work Ms. Arden, truly. But nothing you say will change my mind.”

In response to my rising frustration, my neurons started firing unhelpful instructions to my extremities, leading to a faint tremor in my left hand and a frantic bounce in my right knee. “We’ve also sent letters to KARB and ‘Rise and Shine Rye’ asking them to post corrections and clarifications for the errors made in their coverage of Nevermore’s troubles. Which will help rehabilitate Nevermore’s reputation in Rye. Plus, we’re working on a deal to supply a local food bank in Rye with fresh produce, a new green initiative, and low-cost art spaces…”

Using a fork full of gingerbread from his second slice to emphasize his points, Mr. Ikeda skillfully removed the wind from my sails. 

“Ms. Arden, have you ever heard the term, Mutuality of Obligation?”

“No…” 

“Are you an expert in contract law or possess a degree in finance?”

Worried any words issued from my mouth at this moment would reflect only my emotions – I shook my head no in response.

“Then, this topic is closed. Now, if you’d like to stay, I’d be more than happy to teach you the right way to weather a post office.”

2.59 Lepidoptery

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(Okay, so it was decorated within an inch go its’ life – but I did put powdered sugar & edible glitter on my cake! Mr. Ikeda was impressed by the cake pan.)

Gazing at the Frosty the Snowman themed winter wreath hanging in the center of the battered door, a small smile crept across my face. My cousins and I still get together every year, usually in July (so we can pretend it’s cooler outside than whatever thermometer’s reading) and watch animated flakes of snow spring to life under the influence of a festive and magical chapeau. The only difference between our viewings now, versus when we were kids, is that our eggnog is spiked with more than just holiday cheer.

Standing on the top step, taking in the other trimmings bedecking the warm red brick of the unfamiliar home, I took a moment to bask in the warm glow of nostalgia. Turns out, recalling our unseasonal tomfoolery helped to settle the kaleidoscope of butterflies who’d been residing in my mid-section since last evening. 

Deciding I couldn’t continue to stand on the stoop basking in recollections, I shifted the plastic cake carrier to my off-hand, mindful of the delicately piped icing inside. Raising my now free dominant hand, I gave the door an energetic knock – which resulted in a cacophony of barking to erupt on the otherside.

The winged insects infecting my middle lurched back to life at the unexpected sound. 

They wobbled further still when incessant yapping produced a hollering human. “Knock it off, you three!” Thankfully, the dogs and my fluttering butterflies quieted as the voice grew louder. “You’ve only got four good teeth between you what are you going to do, gum them to death?” 

Hearing the telltale sound of a chain being slid aside, I attempted to school my features into something that didn’t give away the fact the dog owner’s obvious exasperation made me want to laugh.

“Come on, move back, or you’ll never get a chance to defend the castle…” By the end of the sentence, five eyes were scrutinizing my ankles, knees, and calves with clear suspicion. Another two, six inches above my own, regarded me with a glint of good humor.

“Mr. Ikeda? I’m Phoebe Arden, Caretaker of Nevermore, we spoke on the phone last night…”

“How do you do! Come on in.” Giving me a friendly smile, he stepped back and beckoned me inside. However, the pint-sized trio of tail-wagging pooches had other ideas. Clustering tightly around my shoes, they made movement impossible. At their intense circling, sniffing, and nosing of my pant’s cuffs, Mr. Ikeda’s easy smile faltered.

“O’ dear, I forgot…. Are you wearing socks that rise above the ankles?”

Unsure of the source of Mr. Ikeda’s worry or the right answer, I opted for honesty. 

“Yes? Though, I must admit they don’t match.” 

“That’s a relief. ” Rallying visibly at my affirmative, Mr. Ikeda wrangled his pack of indeterminate breed pooches back and ushered me inside. “I’ve no idea why they do it, but Korben, Rhod, and Vito will spend hours licking your ankles if they aren’t covered. Drove my wife nuts in the summertime.” 

The chuckle, resulting from the vision of these three elderly hounds hunting down sandal-clad feet in the summertime, soothed the polychromatic bugs. 

I did my best to return the favor. “Well, most good four-legged companions have at least one quirk. My Aunt’s old cat continually tried to groom her. Libby ruined a number of my Aunt’s hair-dos back in the day.” Hoping to move away from animal anecdotes and closer to the matters at hand, I held up the plastic cake carrier for Mr. Ikeda’s inspection. “Since you invited me over for a cup of tea, I baked something sweet for us to eat.”

After attempting to divine its contents, by peering thru smudged glasses at the translucent lid, he gave up. “My ex-ray vision seems to be on the fritz, what did you make?”

“A gingerbread cake.”

Clapping his hands, which made the puppers start yipping again, he beamed at me. “Fresh homemade gingerbread, how exciting! Follow me.”

Despite wanting to stay off of pet-related topics, I succumbed to temptation. Due in part to the silence, but mostly to the madcap exuberance, the canine triumvirate exhibited as we ambled down the hallway. “Mr. Ikeda, did you name your dogs after Korben Dallas, Ruby Rhod, and Vito Cornelius?”

“A fellow fan of the Fifth Element?” Pushing open a door near the back of the house.

“I’ve watched it once or twice.” Or a half a million times. 

Grinning down at the dogs, who seemed more interested in the cake than me at this point, I nearly plowed right into Mr. Ikeda, who’d paused to open a door and flip on a switch. Expecting to step into a kitchen, I was more than a little surprised to find myself in a room dedicated to hobby trains. And when I say hobby trains, I mean an HO scale replica of the whole of Rye (and the surrounding area) from June 1938. Spliced seamlessly into the scene was Iron Horse Railway – a rail system of Mr. Ikeda’s own devising.

It easily took up three-quarters of the room.

Feeling my mind blue screen at the sheer scope of the build, it was hard to focus on a single question long enough to ask it. “Why…How many…How did you get into trains?”

Mr. Ikeda, standing near the middle of the wall to wall workbench opposite his mammoth miniature, contemplated my question for a moment. “My wife didn’t like how the bank occupied my thoughts on my days off, so she found me a hobby. What do you think?”

Traversing down the edge of the table carefully, not wanting to accidentally dislodge a building or topple over a tree, I stared down at the detailed model that put every diorama I ever made to shame. “This. Is. Awesome.” 

(I’m not kidding. It is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen….ever.)

Eyes twinkling, he came to stand next to me. “It’s not bad. I’m thinking of knocking out the living room wall so I can add a mountain range, a desert, and a river gorge…But you didn’t come over to discuss my hobby. May I?” Relieving me of the cake carrier, he crossed back to his workbench and gently placed it in the open space he’d created while I goggled over his ‘hobby’. Pulling out two mismatched mugs from under his bench, he flicked the switch of the electric tea kettle then turned back to me. “I hope you don’t mind talking in here, Sundays are my dedicated train day…”

Recalling my actual reason for stopping by, I stepped back from the scale model (I could feel myself starting to obsess over) and joined him at the workbench. “No, this is great, really great, and I’d love to talk about this….” Gesticulating my arm in several wide and wild motions in the direction of perfection in miniature. “…at length. But you’re right, it’s not why I’m here, and I apologize for intruding on your day off. But what I need to discuss with you is time-sensitive.”

“So you said on the phone.” Taking a seat on a wooden stool, he motioned for me to take the one opposite him. “Now, what can’t wait until Monday morning?”

Setting my pack on the indicated stool, I pulled out a folder thick with paper, before parking my backside on the seat. Taking a deep breath, reminding myself not to fidget, I followed the Aunt Pearl and the Red King’s advice. “I’m not sure if you’re aware, as CFO of Western Regional, but Ben Abernathy Junior took out a loan with your institution about a year and a half ago or so.”

Tilting his head, Mr. Ikeda’s expression became unreadable. “I am.”

Lacing my fingers together, I continued to plow forward, trying hard to meet his eyes. “Well, due to that loan and our inability to pay it back in full by ten am tomorrow morning as requested, we are forced to relinquish our collateral. Which means I need to terminate the lease for Western Mutual’s headquarters.”

2.56 Well Hell…..

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Gobsmacked is such a lovely word. 

Not only does it have the word ‘smacked’ in it, but it also rolls off the tongue in such a pleasing manner. Conveying beautifully in a single word, the unexpected and staggering surprise that on occasion envelopes one’s person. Flabbergasted comes in as a close second, but I prefer the term gobsmacked in situations such as these – because that’s precisely how Little Ben’s stammering plea left me feeling.

Gobsmacked.

Sitting on the couch, no longer denuded by Robbie’s efforts at nest building, I rode the silence (just as Wood taught me) waiting for Little Ben to embroider the bombshell he’d dropped on my doormat. Beatrice, who appeared equally stunned by Little Ben’s surprising statement, quickly excused herself from proceeding – citing the unspecific excuse of ‘work’.

(BTW, her office door is standing wide open across the hall.)

Little Ben himself was presently standing before Harold S. Ellington’s case and losing, as everyone does, a staring contest with him. “He looks like he’s been through the wars, when did you get him?” 

“Actually, he belongs to my roommate Beatrice.”

“Seriously?” Glancing over his shoulder, Little Ben quickly returned for another stare-off with Harold. Unsurprisingly, Harold retained his clean sheet, forcing Little Ben to transfer his gaze onto a nearby shelf of books. “Only you could find someone to room with that owns their own skeleton.”

Letting my incredulity at his words fringe my own. “Thanks?” 

Shaking his head, Little Ben rubbed his eyes and turned towards me. “I apologize, that was rude.” Standing stock-still in the center of the room, his eyes skipped past mine and eventually landed on the ceiling above the coffee table standing between us.

“I don’t know where to start.”

Recalling a favorite of Aunt Pearl’s pearls of wisdom, one she’d swiped from a childhood classic, I attempted to nudge Little Ben ahead. “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Giving an overly bright half-laugh, eyes still focused on the floor above our heads, he forced out three chilling words.

“Nevermore’s in trouble.”

Feeling my stomach drop away towards the center of the earth, I laced my fingers together on my lap to disguise their shaking and did my best to project the quiet calm of a snowy winter’s morning. Reminding myself – the only portion of this situation that is actually surprising is the fact Little Ben is asking for my help… Rather than me coercing him into accepting it.

“How?”

“I took out a loan…”

“When you bought the MacGregor’s farm?” (For the Sunny Valley Farm Pet Cemetery.)

Finally, swinging his eyes off the ceiling, they veered briskly past mine (again) and latched onto the straight back chair next to the door. Picking it up, he set it across from me, sat down, and started scanning the pictures on the wall over my shoulder.

“No, I paid cash for the land.” 

“Cash?” Jerking slightly back in surprise, I wracked my brain trying to recall the last balance sheet I saw (which was a while ago) for Nevermore and the proposed budgets in the propaganda I’d liberated from Little Ben’s office earlier this year. “How much of Nevermore’s savings did you spend?”

“Enough…” Leaning back in the chair and resting his neck on its back, resuming the detailed survey of the paint and plaster directly above his head. Fortunately, he continued on before I felt the need to prompt him. “…that there wasn’t enough money to start phase two of my plans, so I took out that damnable loan….”

“And I take it, that’s when everything started going wrong.”

A barely audible “yes” reached my ears.

Shutting out the wretched sight of Little Ben’s leaky eyes, I closed my own and pictured, in my mind’s eye, the early morning handicraft still drying in the kitchen.

“So, what’s changed?” 

The question hung in the air between us for more than a few heartbeats. When it became apparent an answer wasn’t forthcoming, I pressed harder – venting off a bit of pent up spleen in the hopes of prying out any and all answers at a brisker pace. “Damn it, Ben, what’s happened that’s so bad you needed to ask me for help? Me?! The person you laid-off and evicted on the same day?”

Hearing him draw a rattling breath in response, I eased back on the couch and unclenched my fists.

“With all the bad press, picket lines, the sit-in…There’ve been a lot of calls to boycott Nevermore….the bank lost faith and called Nevermore’s loan due.”

Trying to keep my brittle calm from splintering, I focused on the problem at hand. “Okay. How much of the loan is left?”

“A little under two-thirds, the Naturalists and Historical Society protests really gummed up the works.” 

“Is there enough left in savings to make up the difference?” 

His only response was to lean forward and drop his head into his hands.

“What’s the penalty if you default?”

Watching his shoulders heave slightly in response, I stared in horror at the crown of his bowed head. “For forks-sake, what did you do?” The only rejoinder I received was a considerable surge in quaking. Reigning myself in, by sheer force of will, I rephrased the question in a less verbose and accusatory tone. “Ben, you need to tell me what happens to Nevermore if you default on the loan.”

In a labored voice, he finally pushed the answer out through the hands hiding his face, to the slice of carpet between his feet.

“I had to secure the loan.”

Convincing myself, I needed answers far more than I needed to shout, bellow or yell – I disregarded the buzzing in my ears, the bitter chill of my skin, and the liquid magma flowing beneath it. 

Choosing, instead, to center my focus on the rise and fall of my chest to establish enough equanimity to speak sensibly…Breath In…1…2…3…4…5…6…7….Okay, this is worse than you ever imagined…..Breath Out…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10….so keep your shirt together…. Breath In…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…..you can scream into your pillow later…..Breath Out…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…“….How much of Nevermore did you put up as collateral.”

“Enough.”

“Do. Better. Ben.”

“Half.”

Needing to put at least a nominal amount of distance between us, fearing I might actually give in to temptation and wring his miserable neck or spontaneously combust, I crossed out of the living room into the hall. Stopping on the threshold of Beatrice’s office, my peripheral vision caught a small movement down to my left. Beatrice, who at some point managed to swap her pajamas for regular clothes, sat cross-legged next to the open door staring up at me.

Setting aside the open magazine in her lap, she rose to her feet. “Bad?”

“Worse.” Flicking a glance over my shoulder, I turned back to meet her questioning gaze again. “Can you sit with him, or on him, if he tries to leave? I need a minute and a change of clothes.”

Lacing her fingers together, she stretched them out in front of her, cracked her neck, then gave me a curt nod. “On it.”

Chuckling, despite myself, I left Little Ben in her talented hands.

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