This is the exit I used to leave the Rare Records Room – you’d never guess to look at it would you? (I’m not sure if the pallets are there for effect or by accident…)
This is the exit I used to leave the Rare Records Room – you’d never guess to look at it would you? (I’m not sure if the pallets are there for effect or by accident…)
(Apparently my mac’n’cheese flavor, is a twist on Haitian Spaghetti! And it’s great!)
Me (trying to keep hope in check): “Help you…”
Leo: “…fix Nevermore?”
With a bemused expression, Ira explained.
Shortly after his unnecessary promotion and upon discovering his copy of the Conventions missing, Ira placed a call to Big Ben. Only to find both Big Ben’s landline and cell were no longer in service. Discussing his unease with his Missus, she asked him one particularly salient question; “Who in Nevermore do you and Big Ben both trust?”
Her words were still rolling around in the back of Ira’s brain when he and Leo got to talking after the latter approached the former about trying to persuade Little Ben from ejecting the Naturalists from Nevermore.
Their mutual troubles lead to their first “summit” in the Rare Records Room.
Over a few beers and bowls of mac’n’cheese, they rewound, reviewed, and rehashed every episode, major or minor, occurring in Nevermore over the past year. My unexpected termination quickly made their list of nebulously linked hinky feeling events. So did Big Ben’s radio silence and unprecedented extended absence from Nevermore. At about this point, Leo, in a fit of frustration, wondered where their guesswork was getting them – that’s when Ira repeated his Missus’s question.
Needless to say, their answers matched.
And here we are.
Taking a measured sip of my second drink, I slowly rolled it across my tongue, feeling oddly relieved that I wasn’t the only one who’d felt an ill wind blowing through Nevermore.
Me (taking a deep breath): “I’m pretty sure I know what Little Ben and the Board of Managers have been working on.”
Leo (cut in utterly astonished): “How? Even I couldn’t finagle that….”
Me (drily): “How did you find out about the NDA’s?”
Leo (wiggling his eyebrows): “Touché.”
With timing, only servers can muster our bowls of bespoke mac’n’cheese arrived. Since the eighth wonder of the world required our complete concentration to properly appreciate, our conversation stuttered to a stop until Leo, and I licked our bowls clean (Ira restrained himself from following suit, but then he can eat here whenever he chooses).
Once we recalled our place, which took a moment due to the sheer quantity of cheese hurtling through our arteries, I filled them in on Little Ben’s rebranding plans.
Leo (bleakly): “So there’s no hope of the Naturalists staying in Nevermore.”
Not wanting to mouth platitudes, I stayed silent.
Ira (slowly): “I agree, the financial questions need answering.”
Leo: “What do the missing Conventions and Ira’s promotion have to do with rebranding Nevermore?”
Me: “No clue. But the timing seems curious.”
We gnashed our teeth on our list nebulously linked hinky affairs over two more rounds of drinks, without a single bolt of lightning striking our table. Bereft of inspiration, we created a to-do list and ordered dessert.
First and foremost, since Big Ben hasn’t set foot in Nevermore for nearly a year and none of us know what he knows about current events inside Nevermore – we’re going to make sure he knows.
(On reflection, the extra cocktails might have been a mistake.)
In other words, we’re going to track Big Ben down.
Since I’m the only one who owns a real beef with Little Ben, even if it’s a bit late in the day to take umbrage at my pink slip, I’ll raise the least suspicion should Little Ben get wind of our attempts (plus he can’t fire me again). So Ira’s going to drop a list by Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s house of every phone number, address, hotel, motel, and haunt in New Mexico Big Ben’s ever included in a memo, email, or mentioned in passing.
Hopefully, I’ll hit the jackpot with one of them.
The scheme makes me feel prickly inside, as it smacks of tattling, but I couldn’t (and still haven’t) come up with a superior alternative.
Speaking of prickly situations, since Leo’s perched at the heart of Nevermore’s grapevine and my Ms. Hettie theory fell through, I requested he ferret out the name of Little Ben’s anonymous source for me.
Without admitting to playing any part in the farce, I gave Leo every scrap of data in my possession about the mysterious tipster who alerted Little Ben the night of The Brace Affair. (Aka the night Ira’s groundskeepers chased us all over Nevermore.) Explaining my request away as another nebulously linked hinky feeling event in need of an answer – I think Ira bought it.
I was thrilled when our slices apple pie, featuring a very melty piece of cheddar cheese on top, arrived tableside at that moment, completely derailing our conversation off the topic of trespassing pirates…After our initial bite of pie, we hammered out a few other details; don’t risk your job looking for answers; don’t talk to anyone attached to Nevermore about our suspicions, and no, I will not refer to you as 006-&-a-half. Even if you knit a suitable hat.
But all too soon, the cheese, alcohol, and sugar caught up with us.
(Btw, leaving the Rare Records Room is nearly as complicated as entering – I exited two doors down behind the florist’s shop.
While listening to the peppy hoot of an owl, I picked up my phone off the nightstand, found Big Ben’s number, and hit dial. My ears were immediately assaulted by three ascending tones and an automated message, “I’m sorry, the number you have entered has been temporarily disconnected, changed, or is no longer in service. If you feel you’ve reached this recording in error…”
Giving up on my phone and sleep, I heaved myself out of bed, pulled on a pair of well-loved pants and an old t-shirt then padded down to the kitchen. I might not know what’s happening to Nevermore or how to fix it, but at least, I know what my next step is.
I need to bake a cake.
Turning over onto my side, snuggling further under the covers, I gazed past Aunt Pearl’s second-best lace curtains at the moon. I wonder who first posited it was made of Swiss cheese. A clever cheesemonger? It’s a wonder some adman along the way didn’t rename it moon cheese, to sell a few more slices…Thank heavens, the lovely chef at the Rare Records Room didn’t sprinkle any moon cheese into my divine dish of ooey-gooey golden goodness. Because whichever name that white waxy cheese goes by, it’s not for me…I still can’t believe Ira’s a member of the Rare Records Room. How he convinced them to cater part of Wood’s party for me, I’ll never know.
Speaking of unexpected surprises, how can a man his age pull off puppy dog eyes?
Flopping onto my back, staring at the shadows dancing across the ceiling, my thoughts flung me from the precipice of sleep. Finishing the job off properly, I unpacked tonight’s dinner conversation from memory for reexamination. (Though technically it’s three am so it’s yesterday’s dinner conversation.)
Thanks only to Ira’s foresight in choosing a discrete dining table, Leo’s blurted statement of doom wasn’t broadcasted across the entire speakeasy.
Ira (quietly clearing his throat): “Not rotten so much as peculiar. Which is why I chose the Rare Record’s Room for dinner and why Leo’s here. We’ve been comparing notes about Nevermore, and we’re concerned…So we called you.”
Tracing patterns in the condensation on my glass, I waited for either man to continue.
Ira: “Did you hear about my promotion?”
Me (startled): “Promotion? That’s not possible.”
Ira (looking me in the eye): “Be that as it may, I’m now the Head of Facilities and Maintenance. Little Ben gave Gavin my old job title.”
Me: “Did your duties change? Or Gavin’s?”
Ira (shaking his head): “Mine no. Gavin’s, yes. He’s now required to attend meetings I’ve been politely rebuffed from, despite being his supervisor.”
Leo (interjecting): “Which is weird, because they’re listed as Board of Managers meetings on the calendar.”
Me (wracking my brain): “Nevermore’s never had a board of anything since I’ve been there….Did you ask Gavin about them?”
Leo (chiming in while Ira nodded): “From what I’ve gathered, every member signed a non-disclosure agreement, with some steep penalties if violated.”
Me: “So he’s afraid of losing his job.”
Leo: “Among other things, and with the baby on the way, he can’t risk it.”
Ira & I (in unison): “Larissa’s pregnant?”
Leo (grinning): “Yup, just announced it this morning.”
In unconscious synchronicity, we toasted the happy couple – they’d been trying for a while now. (It also allowed me to polish off my first custom marionberry infused cocktail, which packed quite a wallop and is the reason why I’m currently enjoying the comforts of Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s guest room. Uncle came and fetched me after I’d called to say I was a bit too buzzed to bus home).
Me (shaking my head): “So, besides Gavin, who else is on this Board of Managers?”
Leo: “Little Ben, of course, and the other department heads? I’m not one-hundred percent sure. They always meet before anyone’s scheduled to come in.”
Ira (gripping his drink): “I’ve never sat on a board for Nevermore either. However, back when I first started, I believe my predecessor took part in one right after Big Ben’s mother past away. But I’d just met my future Missus, and it was above my pay grade, so I didn’t pay it much attention…”
Me (exhaling slowly): “I wonder if the Nevermore Conventions could provide some clarification…What?”
Ira (exchanging glances with Leo): “That leads us to our other oddity, neither Leo or I can find a copy of the Conventions. Mine’s vanished into thin air. And I’ve turned both my office and the maintenance building upside down looking for it.”
Leo: “Sarah, Lottie, Nathaniel, and Little Ben’s copies are all missing from their bookshelves as well.”
Ira: “We were hoping you still had the Caretaker’s copy.”
Me (trying to visualize my bookcases): “Huh. Now that you mention it, I don’t recall running across recently…”
Both men looked crestfallen at my negative.
Me (slowly): “But I might know someone who could find me a copy.”
Leo (eyes shining): “So does that mean you’ll help us?”
Dressed in a well-loved Eagles t-shirt, jeans just this side of threadbare, purple kicks, and a Cheshire Cat grin the (new) Doorman held it open and stepped aside, “Please come in. If I can steal those keys from you?” Handing him the ring, I moved to the left (heels against the edge of the fabled postage-stamp-sized stage – squee!) and watched him close & relock the door – which incidentally is obfuscated on both sides.
Tumblers pivoted, and keys pocketed. His mischievous smile returned, “If you could follow me, Ms. Arden.”
Falling in step, I attempted to casually scan the room, which proved difficult due to the towering blind spot created by my guide’s broad shoulders and the narrowness of the room. Unwilling to hyperextend my neck trying to gain a comprehensive look around him, I settled for a few sideways sneak peeks at the other patrons, who returned my looks with curious glances of their own.
In a flash, my escort was gesturing towards the right half-moon booth in the back of the speakeasy. Pausing for a moment before taking a seat, I caught my first panoramic view at the Rare Records Room and…
…Holy Cats Batman!
Gold records arranged like dragon scales decorated every square inch of the walls not occupied by long back leather bench seats or the bar. Oh man, and the bar. The bar is a thing of beauty. A counterpoint to the modern feel of the rest of the room, the swirls and whorls of the art deco design, when combined by the eye, created a dragon curled possessively around his horde. Unlike Smaug’s golden trove, this dragon guards sixty feet of glowing liquor bottles – twelve rows deep (without a single repeat, I’m assured). Golden light, emitted from three dusty brass and crystal chandeliers, dappled the entire establishment (the dust would drive Aunt Pearl crazy, but it adds to the overall atmosphere of the joint).
Ira’s delighted voice recalled me to reality before my gaping mouth caught any flies. “Good evening Phoebe. I take it you’ve never eaten here before?”
Me (snapping my jaw shut): “What gave it away?”
Ira (eyes crinkling): “First-timers are always struck with the same look.”
Me: “Do the rumors do justice to the mac’n’cheese?”
Ira (slow smile spreading across his face): “No.”
Me (returning his smile): “Then prepare yourself to see that expression again…”
Ira (chuckling): “Looking forward to it.”
Diverting our conversation, my guide reappeared at the periphery of our table.
My Guide: “Would you like your drinks now or wait for the last member of your party to arrive?”
Ira: “We’ll wait, he won’t be long.”
Heart sinking into the leather cushions I fussed with my cutlery, an audience of any kind would curtail me from asking virtually every question on my list (and yes, I’d written them down – so I wouldn’t forget one under the influence of cheese).
Sidetracking me from my wilty feelings My Guide, after ascertaining this was my first visit, started quizzing me. First up? My favorite & least favorite flavors, cheeses, pastas, flowers, colors, and allergies. Then he inquired after my fondest & saddest memory, best friend and three things I couldn’t live without. Finally, to round out the twenty-questions session, he asked me to name something, anything, I hated.
After he departed, I wasn’t sure if I’d just finished a creepy stalker quiz, psychological evaluation, or both.
Taking a sip of water, I was saved from trying to recollect my place in the conversation by the arrival of the last member of our party (and apparently I wasn’t the only one with Hogwarts on my mind).
Leo (wearing a red and gold Weasley inspired sweater & grin): “Evening Ira, Boss….Did you just get The Grilling?”
Well, that’s all the confirmation I’ll ever need to prove I’ll never make it on the professional poker circuit.
Scooching over so Leo could take a seat, we were saved from an awkward pause by both the rituals of polite conversation and then by My Guide’s timely arrival with a tray of one-of-a-kind cocktails tailored to our tastes. He also reassured us our dinners were bubbling away in the oven as we spoke.
(If it’s half as good as this marionberry vodka drink, I will be spoiled for any other mac’n’cheese for all eternity.)
Realizing my companion’s concoctions remained untouched, I lowered my glass, bouncing my gaze between the two men, both of whom appeared unexpectedly uncomfortable. Unsure of the root cause, I rode the pause, waiting for one of them to speak (with the barest flutter of butterfly wings starting in my stomach).
Leo (blurting): “Something’s rotten in Nevermore, and we don’t know what to do.”
Up until about an hour ago, I’d no idea Ira, Nevermore’s Chief Groundskeeper, was a Member of the Black Eyed Dog’s Rare Records Room. Or at least I’m pretty sure he is. My suspicion is based on one tenuous fact; not once in any of the accounts, I could recall of the secret, and elaborate entrances into the speakeasy did anyone ever mention walking thru the record shop’s front doors.
Seriously, you don’t understand how huge this is.
Ferreting out a Rare Records Room Member is akin to Harry Potter finding a Horcrux. Though there are ten members of the Rare Records Room verses, seven Horcruxes and Rye is smaller than the UK. So I suppose that mathematically speaking, the odds of finding a Member are better than locating a Horcrux.
However, it’s never felt like it.
Wood and I, together and independently, have been endeavoring to sidle over the threshold to sample their legendary bespoke mac’n’cheeses & cocktails since our twenty-first birthdays without success.
(I’ll bring Wood a doggy bag of the aforementioned mac’n’cheese, you gotta have your buddy’s back).
Unless I blow the entire operation by forgetting Ira’s instructions. My lines. The refrain. Or possibly pass out due to holding my breath waiting for the winking “Now Serving” sign above the buyback counter to blink my number!
Thankfully my ticket and their ticker matched up before my nose met my toes – but it was a close shave.
Approaching the counter with all the swagger I could muster, that of a nine-week-old kitten. I slid my driver’s license out of my back pocket and handed it, along with my crinkled number slip, to the gentleman of a certain age, sorting a substantial stack of vinyl behind the counter.
Listening to his robotic delivery of “How can I help you?” I parroted the phrase from Ira’s cryptic text told me too. “I was told you could show me a rare b-side from the single Nightswimming? I’m told it’s an acoustic version of…” My voice faltered at the end of my request when the Counterman’s sharp scrutiny pinned me like a bug to the floor (it didn’t help that he was gazing over the tops of his glasses, channeling his stern inner schoolmarm).
“Who told you this?”
Only twenty-five years of accumulated trust in Ira kept me from fleeing the Counterman’s unblinking stare (seriously this guy could give an owl lessons). Leaning across the counter, feeling ridiculous, I sang the refrain from I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Without a word, the Counterman stepped out of sight, taking my license with him (in the middle of my serenade, I might add. I know I’m no Marvin Gaye, but I’m not all-hands-abandon-ship bad).
Unable to maintain my indignation (the butterflies fluttering in my tummy demanding my full attention), I started bopping along with the shop’s current musical selection. While absently flicking the loose edge of a sticker stuck to the countertop waiting for the Counterman to deliver his verdict.
It didn’t take long.
Wearing half a smile, he reappeared, sliding my ID and a ring of keys over the counter, “Step to the left, and I’ll buzz you in.” Daydreaming of ooey-gooey cheesy goodness waiting for me, I nearly missed the small nod the Counterman gave me to step on through to the other side.
When the single forty watt light bulb flickered to life above my head a beat after shutting the door, I discovered myself in…a utility closet.
Said closet contained black wire shelves crammed with cleaning solutions & toilet paper, a mop sink & bucket, a rack of dust mops & brooms, a dumb waiter, an employee of the month plaque, two ratty Cure album covers hung on the wall, two folding chairs and a battered card table dressed up with a wilting red carnation in a chipped bud vase.
You gotta be kidding me.
I know Ira wanted to talk in private, but eating in an actual closet to keep our conversation closeted? Absurd doesn’t come close to covering that circumstance. During my languorous and lengthy eye-roll, my orbs were arrested at their apex when they caught sight of the small dark plastic dome set in the ceiling.
A slow smile of comprehension crept across my lips. Guests are neither Members nor Joe Q. Public, so perhaps the Rare Records Room split the difference – bypassing one of the notorious two tests for ingress.
Nicknaming the test, The Case of the Hidden Door, I started searching for any mysterious cracks in the plaster, loose tiles, unexplained half-moon scuff marks marring the linoleum or racks not wholly resting on the floor. No joy. After inspecting the mop sink for any abnormalities – there weren’t any – I stood absently rubbing my neck, my eyes idly read the plaque hanging betwixt the two Cure album covers.
Wait a second.
Never mind the fact that February came and went in a fury of snowflakes and candied hearts, the plaque listed Nick Drake as the Black Eyed Dog’s Employee of the Month for 1974. Nick Drake was a tragic, talented, and influential late sixties folk singer who’s musical catalogue includes a song called Black Eyed Dog.
Serendipity, flukes, strokes of luck, or twists of fate should never be trusted when found in D&D Dungeons, magic acts, or speakeasies.
Lifting the plaque from the wall, I punched the air in victory when I discovered a keyhole hidden underneath. Working my way round the ring of keys given to me by the Doorman, I finally found the lock’s mate and gave it a twist.
“Good evening Ms. Arden. Welcome to the Rare Records Room.”