Category Archives: Phoebe

2.10 Pink? Pink? What’s Wrong With Pink?

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(The Princess is not the color of medicine!)

The Alter, no matter the time of day, always features fresh-baked baked-goods, so when I barreled thru the doors looking for something sweet, they didn’t let me down. Even better? The barista behind the counter didn’t bat an eyelash at my slightly grubby outfit, which earned her a generous tip after I paid for my chalice of coffee and a raspberry bear claw the size of my face. 

While I waited for the shout proclaiming my order fulfilled, I moseyed over to the altar in the corner. After all the events at Nevermore today, lighting a candle for luck and offering up a handful of Kona coffee beans up to the Fates couldn’t hurt. Some well-timed serendipity might come in handy shortly if today’s events were any indication.

Looking at my watch, I decided against eating my treat on the spot, as I still had an outside chance of beating Beatrice (Wood’s not-so-secret-secret-informant) home, thereby avoiding Wood’s wrath when she spilled the beans about my adventuring.

My plan, such as it was, worked for about one-hundred and twenty seconds after I turned into the Lavender Lady’s alley. Just long enough for me to let out a victorious whoop when I discovered Beatrice’s spot holding nothing but dead leaves, pull the Princess into her slot, shut off the engine and start casting about for my stuff.

Fortunately, the approaching bright twin beams of a silver Audi illuminated the Princess’s interior nicely, allowing me to figure out where I’d set my phone.

Fan-forking-tastic.

Abandoning my half-eaten bear claw and coffee dredges, Beatrice and I alighted from our respective rides at the same time, her face split by a grin (knowing she’d busted me). Pulling some chutzpah up from somewhere around my left knee, I attempted to hoodwink my her anyways. 

“Would you believe I came out here to think?”

With a sideways glance at the Princess, then at me, she let loose a laugh, “That explanation might hold water if; your backseat wasn’t filled with boxes, your coat not covered in crumbs and one shoe wasn’t crusted with what is hopefully mud.” 

Still in stitches, she leaned back into her car and grabbed some tied off plastic bags, all which sported the logo of my favorite comfort food joint, off the passenger seat.

“It was an exciting day in the alley?” 

Chuckling, Beatrice landed the final blow, “I gathered. Ms. Hettie called this afternoon to warn me about some mentally unbalanced car thieves who stole the back alley eyesore, the Pepto-mobile, but left her Impala untouched.”

Sputtering for a split second, “Eyesore? Pepto-mobile? The Princess is a cotton candy classic!” Stroking her pink hood soothingly, “Don’t let that delusional old bag of bones get you down. She thinks sweatshirts with embroidered geese are stylish.”

Highly amused over our indirect verbal skirmish, Beatrice moved on, “Come on, let’s get out of the dark and damp. I bought dinner from The Diner On The Corner.”

Honing in once again in on the takeout bags, my mouth started watering, “Pie?” 

(You can never have too many sweets on a day filled with disconcerting information.)

Throwing her own PULP tote over her shoulder, “Only if you can honestly tell me those boxes aren’t heavy.”

Hand over heart, “Sarah did all the hefting. The most substantial thing I heaved was this tote, and it’s mostly scarf now.”

“Sarah?”

“Yeah…” Giving Beatrice an abbreviated version of today’s events, we walked up the path towards the back of the Lavender Lady. She laughed at my description of Leo’s hat in all its snaky glory and my plan to shock my cousins.

When the curtain above our door twitched, I shot a toothy grin at it, Pepto-mobile my ass.

Once inside, Beatrice headed straight back to the kitchen while I removed my grimy shoes, sodden socks and sticky coat in the hallway (the raspberry jam of my bear claw nailed it). When I finally finished (and tossed the PULP tote with its pilfered promotional folders into my room), I joined her in the kitchen.

Beatrice, having shed her own outerwear, stood at the counter, dishing up our dinner. After she declined my help, I walked over to the old radio. Turning it on, I fiddled with the dials until the static resolved itself into the classic strains of Sinatra’s Glad To Be Unhappy. Apparently, KARB’s DJ agrees with my theory, that sorrowful Sinatra songs sound best on rainy days.

The clink of porcelain on Formica pulled me from my reverie, turning from the tuner, I joined Beatrice at the table.

After leaning over to smell the bowl of goodness in front of me, I made my opening gambit, “So, is PULP sending you any place interesting soon?”

Beatrice gave me a wry smile and put her spoon down, “Nope. So why did you split hairs with the doctor’s orders?”

Waffling for a moment, I finally cast my (metaphorical) cards onto the table, “I’ve been going stir-crazy, and Little Ben emailed about some boxes, and it seemed like the perfect reason to leave the house. Plus, I got to take off my slippers. It was just an errand, not a FLYT fare so…”

A shrug finished my sentence, and a bite of my stew filled the conversational void while I waited for Wood’s not-so-secret-secret-informant to declare my fate.

Nodding thoughtfully in time with the radio (Diana Krall’s version of In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning), Beatrice sipped her red wine (btw I got a glass of two-percent milk, per Wood’s instructions) then spoke, “I have a proposition for you.”

With a mouth full of stew soaked biscuit, I could only nod.

Summing up my conundrum, “Our friendly doctor wants to make sure you don’t overdo it. But your well enough to chafe over sitting at home, correct?” At the end of her question, she started playing with her wine glass.

Unwilling to spit my food at her, I nodded again.

Watching the swirling liquid, she continued, “Did you know I have a second job?” Not waiting for an answer, she went on, “And it requires a driver. Since you’re the pro, what do you say? I can make sure you don’t over-do it, you can wear shoes again, and we’ll both stay in Wood’s good graces.”

Gulping down my mouthful, “How do you feel about pink?”

2.09.b Slip Sliding Away…

2.09b slip sliding away

(Okay, so it wasn’t quite this wet…but it felt like it!)

Problem solved, Little Ben promptly expelled me from the Proprietor’s Office. Which initially, I found vexing as I still had several more questions to ask him. But his haste did provide one advantage – he never gave my bulging PULP tote a second glance. Allowing me to stroll out the main doors to the Princess (after retrieving my keys from Sam in Reception) with a bevy of snaffled documents without anyone being the wiser. 

Stowing the aforementioned tote in the passenger side footwell, as the Princess’s backseat/trunk was filled with moist cardboard boxes, I gave a flummoxed looking Lottie a little wave and drove further into Nevermore. It didn’t take long for the Big Cedar to come into view, but it did take a few minutes to wend my way to the parking spot beneath it’s dripping boughs. 

Wishing that the weather would let up for a few minutes (it didn’t), I pulled on my hat & gloves and exited the Princess. My prickling toes leading me over some seriously squelchy turf directly to the knot of waiting Residents Orin asked me to meet.

When I stepped into the thicket, they erupted in unison: How are you feeling? / Orin & Joseph said you were fine, but we wanted to make sure. / What made you mad earlier? Little Ben? / We missed you. / Did you really stop the Woman In White by yourself? / Everyone’s okay. / You should see my squirrel, he’s so cute now!

After assuring them, I was on the mend (visibly reducing their anxiety). Let them know Orin had relayed their get-well wishes (making him beam). Expressed relief the Woman In White hadn’t harmed them (wreathing the group in smiles) and let them know Joseph was the one who’d really saved the day (a clarification none accepted, which was weird). They caught me up on all the latest gossip in Nevermore (mainly encompassing the work ethic of the two new groundskeepers & Mazy’s squirrel buddy).

Only after I let loose a bone-rattling shiver did Orin call the congress to a halt (wool, a wondrous fiber, can only absorb so much water).

After many goodbyes and a bit more squirrel gossip, Orin accompanied back to the Princess, ostensibly to keep me from slipping on the swampy grass. However, my spidey sense was tingling (which was about the only sensation I could feel – since everything between and including my fingers and toes felt numb). He waited until we were well away from the others before he spoke.

Orin (quietly): “I happened upon an Errant, Caretaker.”

Well, this day just keeps getting better and better.

Me (sinking laces deep into the mud): “What happened?”

Orin: “Took a stroll through the old neighborhood to see what’s new when I caught a glimpse of him in Remembrance Park. Before I could decide what to do, he saw me and Flared.”

Me (sliding): “Did he pursue you?”

Orin (steadying me): “Nope.” 

Me (back under the Big Cedar I used a rock to scrape some of the mud off my shoe): “Well, that’s something. I take it you’ve not bumped into him before?”

Orin: “Nope, never, and I visit pretty regularly.”

Me (studying my slightly cleaner sneaker): “Did you tell Joseph?” 

Orin (nodding): “Yes, he’s prohibited anyone from venturing within a six-block radius until you investigate.”

Me (sighing): “Anything else?”

Orin (thoughtfully): “The Flare felt more like a warning, don’t come closer, rather than belligerent.”

Me (nodding while unlocking the driver’s side door): “Thanks Orin, I’ll check it out.”

Squeezing my shoulder once in sympathy, Orin turned on his heel and strode away. Ensconced in the Princess, I cranked up the heat then rested my head against the steering wheel. Waiting for the feeling to return to my extremities, acknowledging what the weather tried to tell me earlier – I should’ve stayed at home (if nothing else today proves the old adage when it rains it pours).

Seems my recovery/break/staycation is over.

I need something sweet.

2.09.a Where Does The Devil Live?

Using subterfuge learned from my seventh grade English teacher Mrs. Krimple (who, when her back was turned, kept tabs on us in the reflection of the window next to the blackboard), I watched Little Ben stop dead in his tracks when he caught sight of me behind the desk. His surprise quickly morphed into suspicion, casting a swift glance over the contents of the conference table, his face filled with relief when he found the papers undisturbed.

Focused on controlling my breathing (no reason to make him wonder why I was huffing and puffing), I continued to feign ignorance at his entrance, then watched his relief fade and irritation grow under my continued silence (taking a page out of chapter seventeen of Wood’s textbook) 

Little Ben (stomping toward me): “What are you doing behind my desk?”

Me (turning to look him in the eye): “Enjoying the view.”

Unwilling to relinquish my place behind the Proprietor’s desk, I leaned a shoulder against the chilly window, ignoring Little Ben’s shooing motions.

Me: “Ben, why did you ask The Naturalist Club and the Historical Society to leave Nevermore?”

Little Ben (stopping at the edge of the desk): “I didn’t ask you up here to discuss my plans.”

Me (the sting of an electrical current sparking over my toes sucking the civility from my voice): “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t, but that’s where we’re starting.”

Gaining a slightly distracting ally, Orin strolled past Little Ben to stand next to me.

Orin (surveying Little Ben): “Do you need help, Caretaker?”

Little Ben (attempting to override my question): “I want to talk about a blip in security.”

Without taking my eyes off Little Ben, I shook my head no once, Orin tapped my shoulder in acknowledgment. 

Orin: “Well, let me know if you do. When you finish up here, can you meet some of us under the Big Cedar?” 

With an acknowledging dip of my chin, Orin departed, and I got down to brass tacks.

Me (glomming onto the title of Little Ben’s pipe-dream-dream-boards): “Does Big Ben know your plans to rebrand Nevermore?”

(Not that I knew what they were, but fifteen feet of poster board denotes some significant changes in the works.)

Little Ben (grinding his teeth): “Dad made me Provisional Proprietor.” 

Me (flatly): That doesn’t answer my question.

Little Ben (defensiveness lacing his voice): “I don’t need to. I’m the Provisional Proprietor. Dad’s letter is there on the desk if you don’t believe me.”

Following his outstretched finger, I spied an envelope sitting in plain sight on the side of the desk (which probably reassured Little Ben that I hadn’t pawed thru his papers), pushing off the window I stepped over and picked it up. Coffee stains covered the entire front, the address reminded me of an inkblot from the Rorschach test, as the liquid had rendered the writing nearly illegible.

Flipping it over, I slid several (shockingly pristine) pages out and started to skim Big Ben’s neat writing. When Little Ben answered his cell, I took advantage of his distraction and took a pic of the letter’s first page (I’d taken pictures of everything else).

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It confirmed Little Ben’s appointment as the Provisional Proprietor, which was hardly surprising, he was Big Ben’s son.

Me: “I don’t doubt he put you in charge, Ben.” 

(I am still surprised that Big Ben rubber-stamped my lay-off, however.)

Little Ben (still distracted by his phone): “So glad we cleared that up. Now, about this security blip. A few weeks back, Dad’s alarm code was used to disarm this building. Obviously, it couldn’t have been him and I’m not sure what happened. The cameras malfunction the same night as well, so they’re no help.”

Ignoring his question for a moment (since I knew what was behind his “security blip”), my mind spun in another direction, on to another explanation for Big Ben’s prolonged absence. 

Big Ben always said he’d only retire when he went toes up. 

Taking advantage of my stupefied silence, Little Ben used his personal space (i.e., bulk) to edge me out from behind the Proprietor’s desk. Taking a seat, he fiddled with his papers for a moment, then waved me towards the guest chair already occupied by my stuff. 

Me (blindly following his invitation): “Ben is your Dad okay? Did he have a heart attack? Stroke? Broke a hip? Cancer?”

Little Ben (on the back foot): “No. No. No. No.”

Me: “Was he in a car accident? Diagnoses with dementia? Blood clots?” 

Little Ben (flummoxed): “No. No. No! Nothing’s happened! You know Pop, he’s healthy as a horse.”

Me (continuing my rapid-fire): “Then where is he?”

Little Ben (defensiveness lacing his voice): “He’s still in New Mexico, working on a project with a buddy, said he needed some extra time to get it up and running, so he made me Provisional Proprietor.”

Me (still fishing): “Does he still call for weekly updates?”

Little Ben (throwing up his hands): “Not weekly. Look, about the security blip, none of the locks were tampered with, nothing was taken or disturbed. I don’t want this happening again, do you have any ideas?”

Deciding he could do more harm if he tried to solve this problem on his own, I outlined some steps to ward off future ‘malfunctions’. Including carrying out long-overdue system maintenance and issuing new alarm codes to all employees. Which, unfortunately, will seriously curb any future surreptitious after-hours undertakings by yours truly. 

Me (closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I debated my options for a moment): “If you can’t find any evidence of tampering, this is what I would do…”

This day just keeps getting better and better.

2.08 Needs Must When The Devil Drives

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Leaving a still laughing Leo to his work, I entered the stairwell for the fourth time today when the muffled click of kitten heels on hardwood hit my ears, pausing my ascent on the second stair. Only one person wears heels around here…

Lottie (hitting the push bar of the door above): “I’m heading to Sarah’s office now….Yes…Yes, I’ll walk Phoebe up to the lobby to meet you…back in a minute.”

Making a split-second decision, I ducked into the shadowy corner under the stairwell to wait for Lottie to walk past.

When playing hide-and-seek with an unknowing seeker, you can take advantage of more blatant hiding spots. But the fundaments still need following; hold your breath, do your best impression of a statue, attempt to reduce your mass to that of a mouse and chant ‘don’t-see-me-don’t-see-me-don’t-see-me’ in your head. Blending in with your surroundings is a plus, but not always an available option, today all I could do was offer up a silent thanks to past me for choosing to wear a dark woolen coat instead of my bright orange gore-tex.

Not even Lottie could miss my imitation of a pumpkin.

Why am I hiding from Little Ben’s secretary? Leo’s scuttlebutt raised a number of questions, none of which would get answered if we spoke in front of an audience. But in private? Perhaps I could pry out a few. 

(And only a little to do with the fact that Lottie’s the pineapple to my pizza.)

Listening to Lottie descend the stairs, I enacted the principles of a champion hider and was only a little light-headed from the lack of oxygen when she finally past by me and out the door. Counting to five after it swung shut, I scampered swiftly up the stairs (thanking every lucky star in the sky my sneakers had dried enough to stop squeaking). 

In two slightly wheezy (don’t tell Wood) minutes flat, I breezed past Lottie’s empty desk and into Little Ben’s new digs. When my entrance failed to elicit any expletives about barging in unannounced, I leaned back against the door, flipped the lock, and caught my breath.

Usually, the Proprietor’s Office brings a smile to my face. 

With three out of four walls featuring floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases filled with midnight blue bound books who’s bindings combine to create a mosaic – an unkindness of ravens taking flight from gnarled leafless trees under a full moon in silver filagree. How could you not smile at such a sight? (Big Ben never lends out these books ever – I’ve asked).

But today, this awe-inspiring biblio vista filled me with fury. 

Skirting around a heaping conference table, I confronted the fifteen feet of display boards obscuring my favorite sight in all of Nevermore. 

Well, I found Little Ben’s dream boards…….taped to the shelves. Big Ben will mount his son’s hide to the wall if he damages any of the books.

Intending to find a footstool to determine the damage, my eyes fell away from the offending adhesive and locked onto the papers pasted on the poster boards themselves.  

Panic quickly supplanted ire as the series of adverts, slogans, sketches, maps, and action items, Little Ben had plastered across his unusually professional dream boards, penetrated my brain. If accurate, the bisecting timeline placed Sunny Valley Farm & Pet Cemetery as the first significant step in rebranding Nevermore. 

(Even more curious? How spot-on Leo’s intelligence proved. My termination appeared as an action item dated two months prior to the date Little Ben handed me my pink slip – between other ticked off items of ‘secure financing for MacGregor Farm purchase’ and ‘shut off the boiler in Club House’. Seriously, how does Leo do it?)

Taking a deep breath and steeling my nerves, I focused on the problem at hand – time. Little Ben and/or Lottie could return at anytime since I’d yet to steal my very own TARDIS, I needed a way to examine this in detail later… Whipping out my phone, I started snapping pictures of every slip of paper featured on his Pipe-Dream-Dream-Board. Concentrating on the context and not the content – kept me from getting distracted – because even skimming them caused my insides to wobble about uncomfortably. Rapidly finishing my photo documentation, I turned my camera onto the conference table behind me. 

Avoiding the two obvious workstations (no need to call attention to my unsanctioned scrutiny), I focused on the binders. Trying to keep my hands steady, I photographed the title pages, table of contents, and anything labeled ‘budget’. About the time I started perusing the boxes stacked next to the conference table, the sound of kitten heels accompanied by a heavier tread reached me thru the door. 

With one ear, I listened to Little Ben giving Lottie further instructions, while frantically pulling the tops off the five boxes of promotional materials and stuffing one folder from each in my PULP tote. After replacing the box tops, I pulled the fourteen-foot scarf off my neck and crammed it around the folders in my bag. Then I flew across the room, tossing the tote, my coat, and purse into one of the guest chairs. 

The locked door bought me just enough time to slip behind the Proprietor’s desk and watch (in the reflection of the floor to ceiling windows) Little Ben’s reaction when it dawned on him who’d spent an indefinite amount of unchaperoned time in his office.

Because Leo’s information dovetailed disturbingly with Little Ben’s Pipe-Dream-Dream-Boards to raise one singularly critical question…

Where in the world is Big Ben?

2.07 Bad News Everyone!

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Parting ways with Sarah at the stairwell, we set out to complete our separate missions – the only hitch in the giddy-up? 

Little Ben wasn’t in his office. 

To clarify, not only was his person missing – but so was his desk, dream boards, and Lottie (his secretary).

Which prompts the question, what the hell? 

Unwilling to waste my time cooling my heels in front of an obviously unoccupied office, I strolled down the corridor, peering thru doors hoping to catch someone between calls. But unfortunately, at three pm, on a stormy Friday afternoon, no one was around. 

Which suited me just fine. 

In Nevermore, there are two desks which remain occupied during business hours – Reception and Receiving – and one of those desks is manned by a veritable fount of office gossip, Leo Wasinski. Anyone could tell me where to find Little Ben. But Leo could tell me what prompted the office switch, details on the move and probably what Little Ben had eaten for breakfast. (Plus I was absolutely dying to see what enthusiastic but odd creation his knitting needles had festooned his frame with today.) 

Beelining it back downstairs, I found the gentleman right where I knew he would be, working diligently at his desk on the loading dock. And not for the first time, I wondered how exactly he managed to acquire his seemingly inexhaustible stream of insider information – while sitting in plain view of anyone walking by.

Receiving is many things, but private is not one of them.

A squeaky hinge alerted Leo to my entrance into his territory, “Hey boss!”

Beholding his hat, it took a moment to frame a proper reply – as it seemed I’d interrupted it in the midst of strangling and devouring him whole.

Me (laughing): “What is on your head!”

Leo (his grin hitting two hundred watts): “Pete!”

Me (rolling my eyes): “Hello, Pete!”

If you’re Leo; it’s perfectly normal for your winter headgear to unhinge its jaw and start swallowing the top of your skull, while its body coils around its “snack’s” neck in order to choke Leo into submission. (It did look really warm & fuzzy and surprisingly cute, Leo is very talented – but twisted.)

Leo (chuckling): “Pete’s an endangered striped whipsnake. The Naturalist Club is raising money and awareness by selling handmade hats and scarves featuring endangered animals to fund our move. This is my contribution to the cause…”

Me: “Wait. Rewind, the Naturalist Club is moving?”

Leo (dimming): “Hadn’t you heard? You’re not the only one Ben’s booted from Nevermore. He gave the Club three months to move and cut off access to the grounds for our programs.” 

Me (shocked): “Little Ben doesn’t have the authority to do that.”

Placing a boot against the metal stool next to his desk, he shoved it towards me.

Leo (no longer smiling): “Sit.” 

I took the hint.

Leo: “Little Ben’s the Provisional Proprietor.”

Holy mother forking shirt balls. 

Me: “What? How? When?”

Leo: “The day after you moved out of the Cottage, he switched offices and made the announcement. He’s been holed up there ever since, ‘planning Nevermore’s future’. Last week he started in earnest, offering early retirement to all the old-timers, axed the apprentice program, asked the Club to leave, and he’s scheduled a meeting with the head of the Historical Society for this coming Tuesday. Make of that what you will.”

Me (voice tight): “So he’s eliminating all the programs I pulled in.”

Leo (eyeing me): “Pretty much. He’s also nixed the plans to certify Nevermore as a Natural Habitat.”

Taking a deep breath, I shoved my fury and four-letter opinions down towards my toes. Leo may have been the first person I hired as Caretaker, who knits marginally inappropriate attire for work and whose gregarious nature makes him a riot to hang with – but at heart, he’s a gossip. 

The last thing I needed to do was blow my top like Vesuvius – in front of him. 

Me (evenly): “Has anyone brought this up with Big Ben?”

Leo: “Can’t, he hasn’t been home since he left for vacation. Little Ben’s promotion came via letter.”

Me (eyes wide): “Wait, Big Ben didn’t come back for the holidays?” 

Leo: “Nope.”

Well, that explains why he hadn’t called to wish me a Happy Christmas last year.

Me: “Is he okay?”

Leo (shrugging): “As far as I know.”

Me: “Well, crap. At least this answers my question.”

Leo raised an eyebrow.

Me (getting up): “Where Little Ben’s office is.”

Leo (smiling again stood with me): “Another interesting item? I have it on good authority Big Ben’s letter arrived well before Little Ben issued you your pink slip.”

Not sure what to make of that morsel of information, I decided to change the subject.

Me (trying to pull off cheerful): “I’ve never asked, but do you ever make custom hats for people?”

Leo (cocking his head): “Sometimes, why?”

Me (a wicked smile wreathed my face): “I believe I’m in need of a giant….”

Leo split a seam when I described exactly what I was hoping he could knit up for me, after some technical questions and measurements he assured me he could make my vision come to life. 

My cousins will never forget about me in the Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool again! Woot!

2.06 Curiouser and Curiouser

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A wave of sound crashed over me when I pulled open the door. It seems it’s one of those days down here.

Hoping my ears wouldn’t start bleeding, I waded my way into Sarah’s Domain & Depository towards the epicenter of sound. I could practically see the Beastie Boys’ beats bouncing around her workroom like some crazy red rubber ball.

Sarah’s Law #11: The higher you crank the volume, the faster you work. 

This law applies equally well, too (working thru) feelings, paperwork, and home repair. With the side benefit of warning all who approach of her current mood – whatever’s playing plus its relative decibel level equals her state of mind. (Essentially her stereo doubles as a mood ring.)

What did today’s selection tell me about Sarah’s current disposition? 

Fight For Your Right + Unadulterated Din = Irked at Little Ben or Filling out Forms*

(It can’t be both: I hadn’t heard the bass throbbing THROUGH the door)

When I made it to the threshold of her office, I discovered my second guess won the prize. A veritable snowdrift of unfamiliar reports littered the top of Sarah’s desk, easing my trepidation about dropping by Nevermore unannounced (from our long association I knew she’d take any excuse for a break). The woman herself sat with her back towards me, filling in a spreadsheet on her computer.

Waiting for her fingers to stop flying across the keyboard, my own fished around in the Pulp book bag I’d borrowed from Beatrice, while my eyes scanned foreign diagrams/graphs/budgets. When Sarah finally paused, I dropped seven-sealed plastic bags on her desk. The unexpected deposit caused her to jump about a mile out of her chair, and by the time she’d recovered (and reduced the volume on No Sleep Till Brooklyn), my butt was firmly planted in her guest chair.

“You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

Unable to keep the mischievousness out of my smile, “Nearly? I’ll try harder next time.” Gesturing to the bags steepled in front of her, while she continued to theatrically clutch her heart (I say theatrically because she was clutching the right side of her chest), “But perhaps you’ll forgive me in exchange for some marshmallows?”

“Marshmallows!” Quicker than a puma pouncing on its prey Sarah opened the bag closest to her and popped a square of cherry-lime into her mouth, effectively cut off all speech. When she started opening up the other bags to stick her face inside and inhale their scents (and filling her cheeks). I decided to intervene on behalf of her tastebuds, raspberry, chocolate, ginger, cherry-lime, lemon poppyseed, vanilla, and pineapple should not commingle. 

“I know we agreed on fifty dollars worth…” Exaggerating her chewing, Sarah held up her index finger to pause my words. 

Finally finished her spot-on imitation of a chipmunk, “I don’t really deserve any in the first place since I gave you the wrong arrival time for the remains.” Putting down the ziplock, she looked forlornly at their contents. “Sorry again…”

I’d called her a couple days after The Confrontation, asking if KARB’s news desk mixed up the arrival date for Tiffany Grindle’s remains. Turns out Little Ben rifled thru and upset her paperwork (without her knowledge) leading to two sets of paperwork getting shuffled together and her giving me a Vernan Jones’s arrival date instead. Sarah fell over herself, apologizing for the inadvertent blunder. 

But none of the Residents got hurt, and the Woman In White was neutralized – so a deal is a deal. (And in fairness I’m only delivering on half of it: Mr. Nelson, in addition to absconding with my mystery, sampled every flavor before he polished off the pumpkin-spice and apple-cinnamon portions). 

Motioning towards the confections, “I already accepted your apology. But if you don’t think you deserve any, I could always take them back…” My teasing rejoinder resulted in Sarah whipping the bags out of sight while emitting a marshmallow muffled growl. “…that’s what I thought. But the real reason I stopped by, beyond needing the Lavender Lady to stop smelling like a candy shop, was to pick up some boxes Little Ben said you’re hanging onto for me?”

“Oh yes, His Highness and your boxes.” Rolling her eyes heavenward, she stood up and walked a few paces to her closet, “I caught Himself in the midst of tossing them in the compactor.” Ignoring my offer to help (not that I was supposed to be lifting anything), Sarah scrabbled around under the hanging coats and eventually produced four dusty cartons. 

“That’s it?”

Cocking her head to the side, Sarah answered, “Yes?…”

A laugh popped out of my mouth, unbidden, “Four? He made it sound like there was at least a dozen!”

“That’s His Highness for you, making mountains out of molehills.” 

Shaking my head, I took a closer look at the forgotten cartons. Three sported labels with the enlightening description of “stuff” written in my hand. The nonconformist fourth, by far the grimmest of the lot, was devoid of markings and bound up with twine, “I’ve not a single recollection of what’s inside any of them…”

My comment was cut short by the insistent ring of Sarah’s desk phone. Putting her index finger to her lips, she picked it up, “Mortuary……Yes, Phoebe’s here. Yes, she’s picking up her boxes. Nope……….. Yes………………….. Sure…… I’ll get right on that….Okay, bye.” 

Replacing the receiver with a sigh, Sarah looked over at me, “His Highness has requested the pleasure of your company.”

“Well, crap.” 

“That about sums it up. Have a marshmallow.” 

While chewing the square of delightful raspberry fluff she’d offered me, I toed my boxes of mysterious “stuff”. Then applied more pressure until they shifted slightly. Crap, they didn’t fall within my light-duty lifting limitations set by Wood…

Sarah happily solved my dilemma before I finished chewing, “Why don’t you head up now. I’ll load the boxes in your car and leave your keys with Sam. That way, you can make a clean getaway when you finish up with His Highness.” 

Laughing, “I will gladly take you up on your gracious offer. Even though I know you’re really avoiding filling out all that new paperwork for a few minutes more.”**

Sarah blushed but didn’t deny it.

*Personally I think she cranks up the volume to stay awake while completing her paperwork – apparently Big Ben finds drool stained statements a tad unprofessional. 

**Despite my ribbing, it was a really nice offer. Not wanting to put her in an awkward position if my illegal adjacent after-hours visit ever came to light, I’d kept her in the dark about my injuries.

Rain!

So this should give some context for the amount of rain that came down from the sky for several hours today…this is the runoff from a nearby building…and this wasn’t even when it was raining the hardest!

2.04 The Black-And-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool

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Familiar Voice One: “Did you pick her?”

Click.

Familiar Voice Two: “Not sure I remember who I put my money on. Its’ been over a year since the last payout.”

Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Three: “Someone’s going to get paid! She’s the dark horse.”

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Four: “Can’t wait until Dylan gets here, and Dad opens the envelope.”

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Me (cracking my left eye open just a slit): “You are going to wear out the shutter on that camera.”

Robbie (unrepentant): “Morticia! Did we wake you?”

My cousins (in descending order Jesse, Dylan, Ian, Dwight, and Robbie) agree with Wood that the nickname Morticia fits me better than my given one of Phoebe.

Me (staring blearily up at four out of five of my cousins crowding around the bed): “Yes. What are you guys doing here? And why is Dylan on his way?”

Jesse (continuing to snap pictures of me): “Mom texted everyone that the Black-and-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool was paying out today!” 

Fantastic.

The Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool is one of our clan’s seriously cracked institutions, inspired by Aunt Pearl and observed by my cousins, their spouses, and me. 

On Thanksgiving Day six years ago, while arranging us in that year’s woodland-inspired family photo, Aunt Pearl let out a gusty sigh and thanked us for finally giving her her-heart’s-desire. We were baffled. None of us had any announcements pertaining to grandkids, promotions, or winning a marathon. So what did we give her? Besides each of us wearing (with minimal grousing) a sweater sporting a cuddly woodland creature on its chest? (At least she’d given up making us dress up as the woodland creatures. I feel sorry for my nieces and nephews.) 

The Answer: A group photo unmarred by bruises, gauze, or plaster-encased limbs.

(Personally, I don’t believe the addition of crutches, slings, or the occasional brace really detracts from these tableaus of mortification she insists on and includes in her annual Christmas letters – but I digress.)

My cousins and I thought her claim pure exaggeration. During dinner, we went round and round with Aunt Pearl, until in a fit of exasperation, she pulled out every photo album in the house (there were a dauntingly large number of them) and challenged us to find single unblemished holiday, any holiday would due, photo. Which, much to my Aunt’s disgust (and due to her excellent pie, Uncle’s smooth bourbon and the overall level of tryptophan), evolved into a bout of reminiscing over all the stupid shirt we did which unintentionally mucked up Aunt Pearl’s carefully planned and themed snapshots. 

Idle speculation from Jesse’s partner Tad compounded her indignation when he wondered who’d be the next one to mess up a family photo. The question caused instantaneous Bedlam when we all pointed at each other and loudly declared why our chosen-one would be “The One” to complete the deed. 

Then Dwight came up with a brilliant idea. 

To prove who guessed correctly and therefore won – we’d write our predictions down, put them in an envelope, seal it up and wait until one of us showed for a holiday sporting a cane, band-aid, or splint. To make things interesting, each of us stuck in a hundred bucks in, thus establishing the Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool (in case you’re curious, Dylan triggered the first payout by showing up the following Easter with his left arm encased in a cast).

The crucial detail here? You must be present to win.

It doesn’t seem like Aunt Pearl totally bought whatever Wood’s explanation was last night – so she called in the cavalry. 

Me (struggling to untangle myself from the blankets): “But Chinese New Year isn’t until next week.”

Uncle refuses to celebrate New Year’s Eve or Day, claiming seven days isn’t enough time to recover from his Christmas hangover. (I think he got tired of the squabbling over who had to don Baby New Years’ diaper for the photo.) So we now celebrate Chinese New Year with our neighbors, the Lu’s, instead (much to everyone’s satisfaction). 

Ian (drily): “You think that shiner will be gone by then?” 

Me (mumbling): “Maybe if I put a steak on it?”

Finally prevailing over the blankets and stiff muscles I sat up, the collective hiss from the four boys cut off the rest of my reply. Jesse even stopped snapping pictures (we record every injury responsible for a payout, it’s not as weird as it sounds). Looking down, I realized the scoop neck tank I wore to bed last night gave them a fair idea of the sheer square footage my bruise covered.

Dwight (recovering first): “You’re going to need an entire cow to cover that sucker.”

Robbie (sarcasm dripping off his words): “What happened? Purple hair too passé now? Decided to dye your skin instead?” 

Me (rolling my eyes): “No. A colossal land squid engineered on the Island of Doctor Cousteau attacked me! The Doctor set the enormous invertebrate on my trail after I uncovered his dastardly plan to steal Rye’s entire water reservoir to create an aquatic inland base. Of course, I foiled Cousteau’s evil agenda, but not before he told Squiddy to ink me! Fighting him is how I got banged up and dyed.”

Several beats past while my cousins considered the merits of my explanation.

Jesse (laughing): “The use of a historical figure, a cephalopod, and transforming a classic science fiction story to suit was inspired! Nine out of ten stars!”

Aunt Pearl may have called in the calvary – but we’ve hurt ourselves enough over the years that we don’t fess up to how it actually happened – because it’s usually really dull. Walked into a bulldozer while texting. Tripped on our own shoelace, dog, or second base. Got punched in the eye by a three-year-old. None of these make good stories. So unless we lose consciousness or hospitalization occurs, we don’t fess up to how a payout worthy injury actually occurs.

That being said, I was pushing the limits of the acceptable non-disclosure range of injuries. 

Which explains my cousin’s current close quarters hovering.

Me (smiling): “Only nine? Well, then I’m not going to lift up my shirt so you can record the magnificence of Squiddy’s inking!”

This was met with a chorus of boos and laughter.

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