Category Archives: Phoebe

2.43.a Much Ado About Something

The loud thwack followed by a bellowed expletive pulled me away from watching the icing melt in delicious rivulets across the tops of my fresh from the oven cinnamon buns. Waiting for Wood to hobble in gave me time to consolidate the contents of Ira’s envelope, Beatrice’s laptop, and Joseph’s book. In their place, I laid out coffee and the aforementioned buns. 

Nothing like sugar, butter, and caffeine to help overcome trauma. Wood limped into the kitchen just as I was setting out the utensils, plates, and mugs.

Me: “Did the make-up case get you?”

Wood: “No, the carry-on.”

Apparently, Beatrice switched her plans and flew in late last night. Her presence was easily deduced upon our arrival back at the Lavender Lady due to the matching six-piece luggage set littering the hallway when we walked in.

Me: “Count yourself lucky it wasn’t the steamer trunk, the brass corners suck.”

Giving half-laugh Wood pointed at the pot and pan on the table for permission to dig in, giving him the nod, I put the cookie dough in the refrigerator. Tapping in time with KARB’s current selection, The Ghost Rags, I stuck the muffin tin in the oven, wound the timer then joined Wood at the table.

Pouring my umpteenth cup of coffee, I posed the question that had been troubling me for the last hour.

“Margret, from Much Ado About Nothing, do you think she was secretly in league with Borachio and Don John?”

Pausing, his cinnamon bun laden turner hanging in mid-air, Wood ran a critical eye over me. My besmirched apron prompted his gaze to shift past my shoulder onto the flour-coated stand mixer, the pan of shortbread next to it, and a dish filled sink sitting behind me. 

I’m also reasonably sure he didn’t miss, as I did in my quick tidying up, the dough encrusted spatula I’d left next to my haphazardly packed backpack. Or the fact I had the loopy imprint of a spiral-bound notebook wire across my left cheek and temple.

Wood (finally finishing dishing up his sticky breakfast bun): “Morticia, are these scratch-made or from a tube?”

Me (over the rim of my mug): “Scratch.”

Wood (waving his knife towards my new face decoration): “We didn’t roll in until after two, how much sleep did you get?”

Me (glossing over his question): “Enough. Now Margaret part and parcel in Don John’s scheme or not?”

In point of fact, I got a solid forty-five minutes while my cinnamon roll dough doubled in volume. But who’s counting? Other than Wood.

Wood (clearly unimpressed by my one-word response): “If I recall, everyone ended up forgiving her in the end…”

Catching the tail end of the answer, Beatrice, looking bright-eyed & bushy-tailed (pretty much the exact opposite of the last time I laid eyes on her), walked in. 

Beatrice (grabbing the seat next to Wood): “Forgive who? Me? I apologize for leaving my suitcases in the hall, bad habit. I didn’t get in until midnight, and I couldn’t face lugging them around anymore…”

Me: “No, biggie. Margaret from Much Ado, victim or villain?”

Wood (mumbling): “No biggie for you, my toes will never be the same.”

Beatrice straightened her curving lips at Wood’s grumblings, topping off Wood’s mug and mine before using the pot to pour her own.

Beatrice (seeing and visibly ignoring the red zigzag on my face): “hmmm…..It would add an extra shadow to the play if Margaret had designs on Claudio for herself…However, I think she was a victim of Don John’s scheming. Why?”

Me: “But why stay silent in the face of your friend’s disgrace? When Hero’s own father wishes for her death?”

Beatrice: “Would you want to announce at a wedding, to everyone and god, about your sexual role-playing the night before? Where you not only assumed your friend’s name but donned her clothes and used her room for the assignation? There’s an excellent chance Leonato would have cast Margaret out of his house on the spot, in complete disgrace.”

Me: “True, but the Friar proved himself more than able to temper Leonato’s fury.”

Beatrice: “With Benedict’s help. I’m not sure Margaret would have faired so well in Benedict’s opinion without Borachio’s confession in his hip pocket.”

Me: “I suppose. I’m just stuck on the fact the word of a confirmed knave cleared her, whereas her actions seem to condemn her.”

Wood (around a mouthful of sugar and spice): “Morticia, you’ve never given a flying fork about Margaret, let alone lost sleep over her, what’s really eating you?”

Ding!

Riding the pause with professional ease, Wood waited patiently for my reply while I scrabbled around, swapping the shortbread pan for the muffin tin in the oven. Fortunately, by the time I retook my seat, I’d formed a better answer than, ‘Nothing.’

Me (shrugging): “Just passing the time.”

Wood (clearly skeptical): “Right.”

Apparently, it wasn’t that much better, but it did possess the virtue of being the truth.

2.42.b Wonderland

Crouching back down next to the Toby, who was selflessly offering his tummy up for scritches, Wood tilted his head to continue talking to Joseph. “He’s a sweet little guy. How old is he?”

Joseph, clearly amused at Toby’s shameless behavior, stood next to Wood. “I’m not sure, Toby was full-grown when he adopted me.”

“I’ve two of my own, Bert and Ernie.”

“Do they follow you around? Toby’s my personal shadow.”

Stopping the hysterical giggle threatening to escape me by biting down on it. I watched two pivotal pieces of my life that I’d always presumed would remain poles apart make banal chitchat over another impossible thing.

If I find four more before breakfast, I’ll tie the White Queen’s record. 

The stray thought stole the breath from my lungs. 

Can you imagine seeing six impossible things before breakfast? My paradigms feel fractured at a mere two. 

Pulling up the cuff of my coat to expose my watch face, I nearly wept when it read half-past one. It’s a brand new day that makes my next meal breakfast. I don’t care if I’m still stuffed to the gills from our moon bathing nibbles, we’re hitting The Alter for coffee and danishes. 

This madness must end.

“………Morticia.”

Glancing blankly up at the sound of my name, I did my best impression of Dickens. “Huh?”

Wood, placing the back of his hand against my forehead for a second, caught me up to speed. “Joseph asked if I could watch Toby while he spoke to you in private for a minute. I said it’s fine with me if it’s fine with you.”

Giving him a reassuring smile, “Yeah, sorry, it’s okay. He’s the guy I came here to talk to tonight.”

Nodding, we both watched Joseph issue Toby his marching orders, “This will take a few minutes. Please stay here with Dourwood.” At Toby’s yip of agreement, Joseph turned to me, I shot Wood a quick smile, and then he and I wordlessly headed towards the back of the Manor and out of earshot. 

Sinking onto the top step, resting my elbows on my knees, I watched Wood and Toby dash amongst the rose beds having a grand old time together. 

Joseph has a dog. 

Clearly not the most spectacular gap in my knowledge about the man, but I found it unsettling all the same. 

“So Nevermore has four-legged Residents?”

“Not Residents, Resident. Toby’s unique in Nevermore though that might change with the pet cemetery annex.”

“Any other Residents I’ve not met yet?”

“A few.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw his poker face in place. “More than one but less than twenty?”

“Yes.”

Knowing that was the best I was going to get, I moved on. “HOW is Wood playing fetch with a Resident?”

“Just a trick, Toby learned.”

“What like rolling over?” 

Chuckling at my sarcasm. “Toby knows that one as well.”

“Can other Residents perform this ‘trick’?”

Joseph shook his head. “No, just Toby.”

“Okay, then how are you doing it?”

Joseph gave me a little shrug and a maddening sphinx-like smile.

Rotating my head slowly, stretching out the tight muscles in my neck, I vacillated between wanting to flick him in the forehead and cutting loose a mammoth-sized sigh. Sensing my perturbation, he swept both unhelpful impulses aside by slipping a thick leather-bound book onto my lap.

“A copy of the Conventions as requested.”

“Are you sure?” 

Joseph laughed at my disbelief. 

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“You realize it looks nothing like any other copy I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

“Nevertheless.”

Cracking the spine, I carefully leafed past the endpapers to the cursive filled first page. Sadly, the poor lighting on the porch and the slant of the handwriting made it difficult to decipher on the spot. 

I have a feeling this book could benefit from an index.

“Do you think it will help Nevermore?”

“No idea, but it stands to reason if both my and Ira’s copies went walkabout there’s something salient inside. Speaking of walkabouts, Orin’s Errant….” Letting the impossible issues drop, as I’d learned a clam has looser lips than Joseph, I filled him in on Abraham’s antics, intelligence, and our plans. 

His face didn’t turn grave until the protests came up. 

Of course, he knew of them, they’re literally on Nevermore’s doorstep. However, he’d been unaware of the extent of unrest Little Ben’s plans had churned up in Rye. “The silver lining in all this bad press and protests is they work in our favor. Not only are they pointing out what Nevermore would lose with the demolition and deforestation, but they will also cause delays.”

Staring up at the stars, he quietly asked, “Does everything rest on finding Big Ben?”

“Not everything…Okay, everything.” Stroking the leather book sitting in my lap. “I’ll find a Plan B.” 

“I know you will try Phoebe.” 

2.42.a Nevermore’s Most Reticent Resident

(Wild Rose Manor’s rose beds during better times.)

Pausing on the Nevermore side of the Wild Rose gate, I used my set of skeleton keys to relock the lock behind us. Then, I accidentally scared the peewaddens out Wood by following Joseph’s instructions and energetically rapping my knuckles against the solid oak door.

Wood (scanning the windows and whisper shouting): “Ssshhh! You’re going to wake someone up!”

Me (grinning and stepping around him): “Relax, no one’s lived here in decades, and security only checks on the house at dusk and dawn, so we’re safe.”

Which is one of the reasons why I’d chosen to meet Joseph here instead of the Crossroads.

Though by the state of things, I’m not sure anyone but security has swung by Wild Rose Manor in some time. Several of the lightbulbs that should be burning brightly were dark, a deep drift of leaves decorated the porch, and the lawn underfoot was shaggy. However, the detail I found most shocking was the state of the rose beds. The plants were leggy, their leaves starting to sport rust spots, and every bush was crowded with spent flower heads.

What on earth’s keeping Ira from dispatching his groundskeepers to taken care of them? On the upside, the negligence should provide me some pretty good cover when Joseph gets here. 

Talking to plants is a thing – right? 

Crowley, from Good Omens, kept an apartment full of house-plants terrified by talking to them and occasionally mulching them. However, the pertinent point here is I’ve got a plant talking precedent. Though I’m sure, Wood will have something pithy to say about using a demon as a role model – even if deep, deep down he’s a little good…

Either way, it’s better cover than trying to convince him I’m rehearsing for an improv workshop – again.

Wood (following me up the path): “So why are we here?”

Me (stepping towards the roses near a working light): “I need to talk to a guy.”

Wood (watching me start to deadhead the roses): “A different guy than earlier?”

Me (starting to create a small brown mound of blossoms): “Yup. There you go, you gorgeous thing….”

Wood (grinning): “Thanks, I’ve started running in the mornings.”

Me (rolling my eyes): “Not you, the rose bush. Talking to them promotes growth. So, running?”

Wood (absently answering me): “Yeah, it helps me wake up in the morning….Do you hear that?”

Off in the distance, the bright bark of a dog broke the night. Dropping the last spent flower on the ground, I wiped the blade of my pocket knife on my jeans then put it away. Joining Wood on the central path between the rose beds, I started walking towards the rapidly swelling sound.

Wood: “Does Nevermore’s security guards use dogs?”

Me: “Every now and again, but they prefer shepherds or mastiffs. That’s a little dog’s voice…”

Stepping in front of Wood at the first pinprick in my toes not only saved me from explaining my watery eyes away (the current arching across my toes was brisk). It also kept Wood from witnessing my jaw hit the ground when a pint-sized blur of white fur bounded thru the lavender, ricocheted off my shins and landed on his haunches at my feet. 

Me (utterly failing to pick up my jaw back up): “Toby?”

Tongue lolling out in a mischievous smile, only a small dog can manage to make charming, the little terrier jumped up, planted his front paws on my knees, and gave me a joyful yip.

Wood (walking around me): “Friend of yours?”

Hand trembling, I touched Toby’s furry head and received a friendly frisson of electricity up my arm as well as a quick lick. Bouncing back onto four paws, the little dog took a shy sniff of Wood’s ankle. 

Me (feeling like I’d just downed a stiff drink too fast): “I believe his name is Toby.”

Wood, who adores all canines, crouched down and held out his hand for a sniff. Cautiously Toby inched forward until he was in nose range. Apparently liking what he sniffed, he bellied forward a few more steps. Allowing Wood to give him a quick head scratch before dancing out of reach again.

Wood (concentrating on making a new friend): “Hello Toby! What are you doing running around Nevermore all by yourself at this hour?”

Joseph (following the path around the lavender): “Apparently, he’s trying to alert everyone to our presence. Good-evening Phoebe.”

Upon hearing Joseph’s voice, Toby raced over, completed one tight circuit around his legs, then dashed back to flirt with Wood. However, instead of playing Toby’s game Wood stood up, waited a beat for me to perform introductions before realizing none were forthcoming, and held a hand out to Joseph. 

Who. Took. It.

Wood: “Dourwood Utley, nice to meet you.”

Joseph (a breath of hesitation between first and last name): “Joseph Marx, nice to meet you as well.”

Doing my best impression of a goldfish, I stared at the spot where the two men just clasped hands, gobsmacked.

2.41 A Wind From the North

Version 2

Wood and I watched, from the Princess’s cozy confines, a patrol car cruise slowly past us. Fighting the instinct to hunker down, I sucked on my slightly scorched index finger while fastening my seatbelt with the other. Much to our mutual relief, the cruiser turned the corner, crawl by the park, then thankfully roll out sight. 

The appearance of the police at the site of our Moon Bathing soiree, after the Beagle and his Human, tootled past us on one last jaunt around the block, is probably pure coincidence. Undoubtedly the one-man watch missed the eerie flickering blue flames of the Snapdragon dish…

…that could possibly be seen from space due to an inadvertently heavy-handed pour from the bottle of apple brandy. (The fact we were laughing like an asylum of loons while popping bits of fire into our mouths – I’m sure escaped his notice as well.)

Pondering the question, should we count this as a close shave with the boys in blue, I turned towards the Princess’s passenger seat for a second opinion. Only to find an unsmiling Wood staring at the space up the street Sarah’s car had occupied up until a few minutes ago. 

Me (using a hankie to wipe the drool off my sore finger): “You think Sarah’s doing okay?”

Wood: “Can you drive past the park for me? Slowly?”

Me (incredulous and yet still turning the engine over): “You want me to follow the cop car?”

Wood: “I’ll explain in a minute.”

Shrugging, I depressed the handbrake, pulled the Princess into non-existent traffic, and followed the police car’s line around the corner. Instead of taking one last gander at the scene of our misdemeanor, Wood stared intently at the opposite side of the street then lapsed into a pensive silence. 

Concentrating on the distant tail lights, trying to divine which way the officer would turn, I let Wood follow his train of thought in peace. I even refrained from letting out a whoop of delight when the police cruiser decided to turn the opposite direction of Nevermore. 

Wood (breaking his own silence): “This isn’t the way home.”

Me: “We’ve one more stop to make.”

Wood (falling back into his thoughts): “Okay.”

Me (glancing over): “You going to tell me what’s going on, or do I need to start pulling teeth?”

Wood (frowning): “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea why Sarah was acting so weird.”

Me: “Shoot.”

Wood (slowly): “A couple of minutes after you stopped shouting in the gazebo and I said goodnight to Laney, the front door of that big brick house across the way opened. All I could see were silhouettes, so I started playing ‘What Are They Saying?’ in my head.” 

Me (looking for a parking spot): “Always fun.”

Wood (nodding): “Eventually, without any hugs, kisses, or handshakes, one outline went back inside, and the other walked towards the street.”

Me (carefully pulling the Princess between two huge SUVs): “An inevitable outcome at a front door.”

Wood (flicking my leg for interrupting again): “I lost interest in the scene until I heard a woman’s voice call out, ‘Sarah! Wait!’. That’s when I saw our Sarah standing under a street lamp across the way, a second later another woman jogged up and handed her something.”

Me (shutting down the Princess’s engine): “Okay…”

Wood: “Morticia, I’m seventy-five percent certain the other woman was Josie Reville.”

Me (jaw involuntarily dropping): “You’re kidding. The Brownie Stealing Bench? Did you know they knew each other?”

Wood (half laughing at the end of his sentence): “No, I didn’t, but if Sarah were hanging out with Josie tonight, it would explain why she was so weird at first. The bad blood between you two is NOT a secret.”

Silently my mind whirred, churning out rational reasons why Sarah might intentionally spend time in The Brownie Stealing Bench’s company. Unfortunately, since I couldn’t fathom spending more than two minutes together with her, my imagination quickly went into overdrive. Spinning out one improbable possibility after another. 

Wood (nudging me): “I might be wrong. That’s why I asked you to drive by the house, I was trying to see if her name was on the letterbox, which of course it wasn’t.”

Me (drumming my fingers against the steering wheel): “The obvious way to prove you right or wrong is to knock on the front door. But that’s not going to happen. The Beagle’s Human is far too nosey for a successful stakeout, even if we used your car….”

Wood (splitting a spare cookie in two and holding half out to me): “Are you really that worried about it?”

Me (around my bite of cookie): “Maybe.” 

Wood pursed his lips at me.

Me (rolling my eyes): “Alright, I’ll be an adult and let it lie. There’s no accounting for taste. In any case, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to hang out here while I pop into Nevermore for a second?”

Wood (unbuckling his seatbelt): “Not a chance.”

Me: “It was worth a try.”

2.39 Oh, For The Love Of Peter Pan…

If you haven’t already guessed my youngest cousin, Robbie, came as an unexpected surprise to Uncle and Aunt Pearl on November twelfth, nineteen-ninety-four. Well, the news they were getting a new addition to the household was a surprise – the inevitable event didn’t happen for another seven months. 

Unlike our parental figures, the news didn’t faze us kids a whit.

Dwight secretly hoped they’d bring a puppy home from the hospital. Jesse worried Uncle would miss his hockey games. I blissfully ignored everything as I’d just discovered all the old trunks/cupboards/suitcases in the attic & started excavating them. I’m not sure about what Dylan or Ian thought about it – but it probably involved Legos.

What we didn’t appreciate at that point, though Aunt Pearl and Uncle probably did, was the steep age gap dividing us from Robbie. A gap that became glaringly obvious the year Robbie transformed into a teen. His teenage angst provided my cousins and me, who’d already transitioned into our twenties, with heaps of vaguely uncomfortable perspective on our own bouts of frightful behavior based on bad hair, worse judgment, and hormones. (And some serious entertainment for my Aunt and Uncle.)

Even more delicious?

Robbie had five additional targets for his pique.

Case in point, the Christmas after Robbie turned seventeen, I spent the entire day wishing I could kick his rear up around his ears. Why? For the whole of Christmas Day, he wouldn’t acknowledge my existence. He didn’t respond if I spoke, didn’t open the presents I made him, and tossed out his slice of cake after he learned I’d baked it. Plus, a whole host of other infuriating slights.

All because I busted him splitting a six-pack of beer with his buddies in Nevermore. 

Apparently, I’d ‘completely embarrassed him’ after he assured his friends I’d be ‘cool’ if they got caught. Seems, ‘cool’ does not include packing said buddies into the Princess like sardines, insisting on driving them home and blistering their ears every inch of the way. Heaping insult on injury, Uncle caught Robbie sneaking in with beer on his breath and grounded him for a month.

Lamenting the sad state of affairs to Aunt Pearl whilst washing the last of the dishes. (In point of fact, my place setting as Robbie had been in charge of the clearing up.) I wound up my woe-is-me-s with, ‘I was never this bad at his age.’ 

Aunt Pearl laughed so hard she needed to sit down.

After she stopped wheezing, wiped away a tear or two, she assured me I had my moments. Then gave me a few words of wisdom that not only helped me deal with Robbie’s prickliness but with Abraham’s as well. “Don’t worry, Dear, he’ll figure out you’re on his side, eventually. Until then? Pretend you’re a duck.” So when Abraham’s voice dripped with barely contained disdain, due to my summons, I let it roll off my back like so much water. 

Me: “Would you rather I track you down?”

Abraham: “Is that a threat?”

Me (exasperated already): “No, I’m asking, would you rather I track you down or simply request your presence?”

Abraham (gritting his teeth): “The beacon is fine.”

Me: “Okay. So now that we’re clear that I’m trying to respect your privacy and in no way threatening you. Which by the way, I feel the need to point out I’ve never done. I was wondering why you Flared at Orin.”

Abraham: “Ah, yes, your pets.”

Me (tossing my hands up): “My gods, you’re a pain in my ass.”

Abraham, not unlike Robbie in his teenage prime, calls forth the urge in me to kick something. Once, during one of our conversations, I booted a plastic lawn ornament so hard it sailed clean across the street where it landed spectacularly on Mrs. Snells’s (dragon of the front office of Rye High) front porch. 

That being said, Abraham’s never let me down. 

Abraham (honing in on the irritation): “You’re only here because I threatened one of your pets.”

To be fair, he’s not totally wrong.

Me (taking a deep breath): “You’re right, I came because you threatened Orin.”

Abraham exhaled expressively, not unlike a punctured tire, at my admission, and muttered something about forking pets I didn’t quite catch. 

Me: “But I asked you to stop by because I was wondering why you felt the need to Flare at all.”

Abraham (sullenly): Why do you care? It took you months to come here and help them.

Me (utterly failing to marshal my patients): “I GOT HURT, OKAY! NOW CAN YOU JUST ANSWER THE FORKING QUESTION?”

Wood (calling out): “You okay, Morticia?”

Me (stomping to the gazebo’s entrance so Wood could see me): “Fine, just mad.”

Wood: “Okay?”

Me: “I won’t be much longer…”

Watching Wood reluctantly turn back around, I listened to him resumed his conversation with Laney. Still fuming, I turned back around and found Abraham standing opposite me.

Abraham (his shoulders hunched): “Sorry, Caretaker.”

Me (trying to relax again): “Accepted, now tell me why you Flared….please.”

Abraham (shifting in place): “I mistook Orin for someone else.”

Me (disbelief shorting out my brain): “Who could you possibly mistake Orin for?… Did you got bored again and Flared at some random girl trying to freak her out, and Orin caught you?”

Abraham: “Who are you, my mom?”

Me (bouncing my toe against the floorboard): “Oh, for the love of Peter Rabbit…”

Oh. My. Lords.

He’s actually reduced me into sounding like Aunt Pearl, she must have said something along those lines million times while my cousins and I were growing up. Completely unhinged by this inadvertent bit of muscle memory, it took considerable effort to refocus on Abraham’s words while keeping the tip of my sneaker from connecting with something, anything solid.

Abraham: “…..traded punches with a while back.”

Me (ignoring the resulting eye roll): “Come again?”

Abraham (condescension laced his words): “Aren’t you listening? Some old dude I’ve never seen before was sniffing around Eliza.”

Me (raking my hand thru my hair): “Could be someone new.”

Abraham (trying to sound casual): “Maybe, but I couldn’t take the chance. You know since we’ve started going missing….”

Me (head jerking back): “Hold on, missing? Missing how?”

Abraham (sounding both smug and worried): “Neither Eliza or I noticed at first, but we haven’t seen Gus in nearly a year. Now, Sam, Maria, and Grady are nowhere to be found.”

Me: “Why didn’t you come to me?”

Abraham (brusquely): “I’m not one of your pets. I don’t need your protection. I’m investigating this myself.”

Struggling to shove aside my desire to punt his ass across the park – I took a deep breath and counted backward from twelve as I exhaled….

…Damn it, Abraham intentionally threatened Orin knowing I’d turn up so he could drop this bomb. For the love of Venkman – only Robbie in all his teenage glory – could come up with a method more labyrinthine than this to ask for help. Pushing aside the feeling I’d let Abraham down for later examination, I began navigating around his hardened shell of adolescent surliness.

Me (cracking my neck): “How about this, since I know where the Genesis Points are for the other Errants in town, why don’t I make the rounds and see what I find.”

Abraham: “While you do that, I can try and lure that dude out by circling my spot.”

Me (lighting lancing thru my stomach): “Actually, I was hoping you could do me a favor…”

Abraham (suspicious): “Depends.”

Me: “Since this unknown guy already found Eliza, there’s a good chance he’ll be back. So I was hoping you could guard her for me. If he turns up again, lead him to Nevermore.”

Abraham (bouncing on the balls of his feet): “Nice! Joseph will make mincemeat of him. Alright, I’ll do it if you promise to tell me what you find out.”

Me: “Deal. Anything about this guy stand out?”

Abraham: “No, just some skinny old dude in a green suit.”

It took some doing, but I managed to keep my smile on the inside at Abraham’s answer. You see, Orin is a great mountain of a man, who is neither old nor wears anything that could ever be mistaken for a suit or any shade of green.

2.38 Parlor Game No.1 – The Spirit Board

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(Laney’s design for the spirit board featured Morse Code…you know to weed out the undesirable tricksy spirits…)

Hunched over and walking backward around the picnic table, l concentrated on leaving an unbroken speckled line in my wake. A bemused Wood, who I caught from the corner of my eye, filching the last bite of baked beans off my plate, looked on. 

Wood: “You know, pouring salt on the grass is going to kill it, right?”

Me (concentrating on maintaining an even pour): “Between the dogs, sprinklers, and rain showers, the salt will wash away before any permanent damage is done, don’t worry.”

Wood: “But why are you salting the earth?”

Me (delivering the last words with my very best Count Dracula voice – which is still pretty bad): “It’s a two-for-one kind of deal. It keeps you safe from all the creepy-crawlies, and it’ll keep you safe from all the Creepy-Crawlies…”

Wood: “Safety first, that’s what you’re going with.”

Me: “Yup.”

Hiding my smile, I kept my eyes trained on the grains of Himalayan pink, Hawaiian black, and fresh hand-harvested sea salt sprinkling from the slit in the bag.

After a spot of investigation on the internet and a lengthy conversation with Joseph, I think we sussed out how The Woman In White was able to cross the spilled salt and attack me. The contents of the bag I’d grabbed from the supply closet that night in Nevermore weren’t precisely what I thought. Instead of pure rock salt Sam ordinarily ordered, this year, he bought a blend – equal parts gravel, urea crystals, and rock salt (of highly dubious quality). So between this less than stellar mixture and strength born of insanity – The Woman In White muscled her way across. 

We’re pretty sure.

Our lack of certainty on this particular point prompted me to use a salt blend Nevermore’s Residents helped me perfect but rarely use. 

The imperfect circle I’m drawing might be overkill, as Orin’s unknown Errant isn’t unknown to me. However, not knowing why Abraham Flared kept my hands steady and steps even while I finished my final revolution around the picnic table where Wood sat. 

Wood (sounding perplexed): “So what parlor game requires we sit within a ring of salt for safety?”

Me (walking back to the table and cramming the empty bag into my pack): “A spirit board.”

Wood (stupefied): “Ouija? Really? I can’t think of a single person I’m interested in contacting on the otherside.”

Me: “I know, but we’re not going to communicate with anyone there…”

With a flourish I placed the archival box, Aarti from the Historical Society lent me, in the middle of the table.

Wood (raising an eyebrow): “Okay…”

Me: “We’re going to try contacting the Grey Man.”

Wood: “Who?”

Opening the box, doing my best Vanna White impression, I flipped over formal photos, snapshots, snippets, and facsimiles. All the while explaining who Edmund Wynter was, his racket, the mystery surrounding his murder, and his notoriously active afterlife.

Me: “So what do you think? Want to give it a try?”

Wood (rolling his eyes): “I’m reconsidering my position on tiddlywinks.”

Wood loves all things weird and wacky but stands firmly in Houdini’s camp in regards to spiritualism. 

His wife, Laney, on the other hand, loves this kind of thing. In fact, she stitched me the spirit board I’d unfurled on the table years ago after I gave her first full tour of Nevermore. She wasn’t clear on exactly how it would help me with my duties as Caretaker, but she figured it was better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

(I didn’t have the heart to tell her spirit boards don’t actually attract their intended demographic.)

Me (trying for a reasonable tone while swallowing a laugh): “It might be our only chance to solve his murder…”

Wood: “Last chance?”

Me: “Sightings of him have dropped dramatically over the past twenty-five years.”

Wood (dryly): “Right. I’m sure the drop in sightings has nothing to do with the fact Wynter was murdered in nineteen-thirty-eight.”

Me: “We could ask him where he stashed his blackmail materials. If his wife or murderer didn’t already turn them to ash.”

Wood (momentarily forgetting he thought spirit boards were pure hokum): “You want to find Pandora’s Box? Think of all the trouble his blackmail ledger could cause, Wynter had access to every government record in Rye.”

Me (shrugging): “I wouldn’t read it, I hand it over to the police, they’d read it.”

Wood: “And Pandora only meant to sneak a peek inside that damned box. What if your great grandparents had something hushed up by Wynter? Wouldn’t you want to protect their memory? Or how about my Gran?”

A ripple of electricity arcing across my toes jolted me out of the hypothetical ethical pickle Wood’s question placed me in. Glancing around, I spotted a scowling Abraham standing in the entrance of the gazebo staring at me. Turning back to my Moon Bathing companion, I found the solution to two out of three of my burning dilemmas in the buzzing of his phone.

Me (snapping my fingers in inspiration): “Tell Laney you’ll call her back on video chat. She can help us break in the spirit board – you’ll get a boatload of husband points.” 

Wood, while muttering something about wishing Laney and I weren’t so close, answered his phone.

Wood: “Hey Twinkie, can you call me back on Facetime, please? Thanks…. Hey, where are you going?”

Me (getting up from the table): “The gazebo, my guy, just arrived.”

Wood (face lit by the glow of his phone): “Shout if you need me?”

Me (over my shoulder): “Of course! This shouldn’t take long.”

Stepping carefully over the ring of salt, I left Wood to catch Laney up with tonight’s entertainment. Walking past a glowering Abraham into the dim interior of the gazebo, he waited until I turned around and faced him before speaking.

Abraham: “I don’t care to be summoned, Caretaker.”

2.37.b Your Presence is Requested

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(This was as far as we got unpacking the basket when the Beagle and his Human walked by the 1st time!)

Unfortunately, due to the diet of worst-case-scenarios, my subconscious fed my waking mind all day. Wood and I arrived at Remembrance Park ninety minutes earlier than anticipated. Add to that the number of dogs who apparently called this neighborhood home, Wood and I discovered a few more people lurking in and around the pocket-sized park than expected. 

All of whom eyed our plethora of provisions warily – the humans, not the dogs – the pooches didn’t bother to give us more than a passing sniff.

Due to the aforementioned number of canines out on their nightly constitutional, Wood and I wordlessly bypassed the park’s fringe of grass and set our supplies on the single picnic table it offered to its patrons. 

By the time I’d inflated the solar camping lanterns, using my mighty lung power, Wood had finished disseminating the acrylic blankets between our persons and the table. And one nosey neighbor worked up enough nerve to lazily paraded his beagle past us.

The Beagle’s Companion (pointedly glancing at his watch): “Evening.”

Me (giving him a friendly smile): “Evening.”

Wood, ignoring everything other than the nibbles, started making quiet nummy noises over the wax wrapped sandwiches, cartons of sides, and thermoses of coffee inside the hamper. From the corner of my eye, I watched the Beagle lead his Companion around the base of the statue, past a trashcan, and behind the diminutive gazebo. (While endeavoring to keep Wood from spooning all the baked beans onto his plate.) By the time the two reemerged on the other side, we’d finished doling out our spectacular spread.

The Beagle’s Companion (craning his neck ever so slightly to take in our heaving table): “Evening.”

Wood (bobbing his head): “Evening.”

The Beagle, apparently annoyed at the lackadaisical pace, strained against his leash towards the street. No longer occupied by laying the table and unable to face my plate or wait until the dog & his human walked out of sight, I wobbled off the bench.

Me (gathering up our debris): “You start, I’m going to get this out the way.”

Wood, who’d just taken a sizable bite of a chocolate cupcake, nodded. 

Putting my feet on auto-pilot. I followed the line the Beagle took around the statue to the trashcan, using my Knack to scan for the lingering Vita leftover from the unknown Errant’s Flare. What I read left me torn between engaging in a wild bout of weeping or succumbing to a fit of giggles. 

Either way, the knots in my stomach slackened.

Disposing of my handful of detritus in the trash, I continued around to the back of the dainty gazebo, pulling up only after I lost sight of Wood and the Beagle’s overly interested Companion. Working quickly, I pulled the pen knife out of my pocket and used its keen edge to prick both my thumbs. Stepping into the shadowy interior, carefully crossing its creaky floor, I paused for a moment at the park-side entrance to give the thread of lingering Vita a quick tug.

Me (my exhaled words bellowing in the cold air): “Abraham, please meet me here tonight.”

Pressing my bloody thumbs on the posts on either side of the entrance, I set the beacon. Finished, I danced a happy half jig all the way back to the picnic table.

Wood (turning in his seat at the sound of my shoes scuffing across the pavement, shot me a grin): “If we start dancing underneath the full moon, someone will definitely call the cops on us.”

Me (sitting down at the table): “Okay, no dancing.”

(Thankfully, Wood chose not to question what I cut my thumbs on – he just passed me his travel-sized first-aid kit.)

Wood (piecing on the morsels left on his plate): “So how did you plan on passing the time until your guy arrives? I assume you brought something in those bags…”

Me (replying thickly between bites of potato salad): “Parlor games.”

Wood: (in mock disappointment): “Parlor games? You invite me out for a spot of midnight Moon Bathing, and you brought tiddlywinks? Wow, Morticia….”

Me (grinning around a bite of bacon/beef/elk meatloaf sandwich): “Never fear Dourwood Utley I’ve devised something more diverting than tiddlywinks for you.”

2.37.a Moon Bathing

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Tooting the Princess horn, I waited for Wood to meet me in his drive. Restless, I pulled my phone out of its holder on the dash and dialed Big Ben’s number. Listening to the first note of the overly familiar out-of-service message start to play, I hung up, wishing I didn’t feel a little disappointed every time he didn’t answer. 

Tossing the phone in the cupholder, I closed my eyes, leaned back, and rested my palms against the steering wheel.

Visualizing Ira’s enigmatic envelope, I counted my breaths and tried to calm the fork down. Unfortunately, my brain took this as a cue to replayed the memory of the Woman In White’s hand plunging into my chest, trying to strip my Vita. Then, and more disturbingly, my mind morphed the memory into a nightmare – by showing me the Woman In White killing Wood instead. 

My brain wasn’t being remotely helpful presently – in case you’re wondering.

Tossing aside the advice of gently noting the negative thought, then letting it go, since my little grey cells decided to play the vision of Wood dying on a loop (quickly converting my insides into a mass of quivering jelly). I dove directly into the heart of the maelstrom instead. Reminding my troubled brain that an encounter with an Errant did not automatically lead to them trying to strip one’s Vita. A Woman In White of the caliber I encountered earlier this year is extraordinarily rare. And the majority of Errants aren’t mad as hatters. 

Even more promising, the Errant in Remembrance Park warned Orin off. 

Plus, I packed fifteen pounds of the purest salt in my pack….and stashed another fifteen pounds in the Princess’s trunk….

The rationalizing helped, the sheer quantity of salt on hand helped more – but neither completely dispel my wibble wobbles or made the memory of the Woman In White retreat entirely. 

Drat my brain.

Taking one last lung-busting breath, I held it until the count of six then slowly exhaled to the count of twelve. Whilst not precisely calm, I did manage to unlock my elbows, stop pressing my back against the seat, and unclenched my death grip on the steering wheel. 

Reopening my eyes, I caught a bit of movement in my peripheral vision, cracking my neck as I turned it, I found Wood waving at me. Leaning over, I unlocked the Princess’s door and let him in.

Me: “Why didn’t you knock?”

Wood: “You looked like you were having a moment.”

Nodding, because it was true, I started backing the Princess out of Wood’s drive. Wood scenting the air like a bloodhound, pivoting in place, then stared at the provisions I’d packed in the backseat. 

Wood: “We’re going on a picnic?”

Me: “Sort of, I thought I’d take you Moon Bathing.”

Wood (flatly): “Moon Bathing.”

Me (stepping on the gas): “It’s like sunbathing but safer?”

Feeling his eyes on me, I continued to concentrate on my driving. This morning on Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s back porch, we’d managed to nail down the time and place I’d pick him up from for our nocturnal adventure. But before I told him the whys, my bleary-eyed cousins meandered into the kitchen and started bellowing for their children. The Niblings wisely evaporated into the wilderness I’d successfully hidden in the evening before. Leaving Wood and I to explain that yes, indeed, we made three kinds of pancakes, bacon, eggs, fruit, and coffee for breakfast. Bequeathing them, as is our family tradition, an unholy mess to mop up in exchange for our early morning culinary efforts. 

(They’d needed a stepladder to wipe up all the spatter.)

They were in a more forgiving state of mind after they’d sampled The Stack. Hopefully, so would Wood after he saw what I’d packed.

Wood (staring at me steadily): “Morticia, why are we Moon Bathing?”

Taking a deep breath, I gave Wood the exact level of truth I thought we’d both be comfortable with. (It’s also one of the reasons why I’d stuff the picnic basket with his most portable favorite foods).

Me (turning onto a side street): “I need to talk to a guy at Remembrance Park. The thing is I don’t know when he’ll turn up, and I didn’t want to wait alone. So I thought we could give Moon Bathing a try.”

Wood digested my explanation. He finally broke the thoughtful silence when I pulled the Princess next to the curb a half a block down from the park.

Wood (releasing his seatbelt): “This guy, does he have anything to do with our Agreement?”

Me (busying my hands): “Tangentially.”

Wood: “So, Moon Bathing is a smokescreen?”

Me (sighing): “Yes.”

Wood (bouncing out of the Princess): “Fantastic!” 

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