2.60 Tea For Two

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

“Would you like ginger lemon or brown rice?” 

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

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

“Ginger lemon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wave of panic washed over me. 

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

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

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

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

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

“No…” 

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

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

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

2.59 Lepidoptery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A gingerbread cake.”

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

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

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

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

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

It easily took up three-quarters of the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.58 The Proverbial Fork

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(I will celebrate properly later…but this is how I feel on the inside!)

I did not manage to thrust my left foot into a tangerine sneaker before Mr. John Dupree arrived at the Lavender Lady. Nor did I accomplish the aforementioned feat soon, or even soon adjacent, after his arrival.

Mr. John Dupree’s casual Saturday attire constituted a lopapeysa in shades that reminded me of the Colombia Basin in summer, soft chocolate tinted trousers, and shiny mahogany hued shoes. In other words – he looked just as dapper dressed down as he did suited up.

(In case you, like me, never heard the word ‘lopapeysa’ before – it’s apparently a traditional Icelandic sweater with a distinctive pattern knitted into it. After I compliment its craftsmanship, Mr. John Dupree happily told me the history of his wooly jumper, purchased while on vacation in Reykjavik.) 

My non-traditional twosome, of black sock and bright shoe, did not go unnoticed. In fact, it received a swift arch of Mr. John Dupree’s eyebrow, a split second conversation pause followed by rapid dive down to brass tacks. 

Which included: a set of speedy introductions, a posthaste hiring of Mr. John Dupree to represent Nevermore, a bare-bones outline of our initial needs, a match set of brisk phone calls to Ira and Leo, a teeth-gnashing wait for their arrival, another set of quick introductions, an interminable wait as Mr. John Dupree penned a clause Ira insisted on including in the contract, some signatures, a fair bit of countersigning, one stamp and then step two was finished.

I am – officially – Nevermore’s Caretaker once again.

And I’ve still failed to carve out a pair of seconds to rectify my deficiency of shoes. Which presently is least of my problems, a point Mr. John Dupree was making enormously clear over some celebratory cups of coffee.

“The language is simple. If Nevermore defaults, the collateral is forfeit, i.e., half of Nevermore’s estate.” Shaking his head, Mr. John Dupree turned to Little Ben and chucked the loan documents onto the kitchen table between them in disgust. “Why did you sign this? The terms are godawful.” 

Squirming under the scrutiny of Mr. John Dupree’s intense gaze, Little Ben shrunk slightly. “Putting up that much collateral lowered the interest rate to practically nothing, so it seemed like a good move. Sarah and Nathaniel didn’t think the small print mattered much since we were on solid financial footing…” 

“Be that as it may, their advise was poor.” 

“Should’ve listened to Lottie.” Was his only (and muttered) reply.

Watching the unbound bits of glitter spring, whirl, and glimmer across the table, I waited for Mr. John Dupree to drop the other shoe. Turning to include Ira and me in the next bit of news, he didn’t fail. 

“I don’t see any legal loophole in the loan or the loan call.”

Fan-forking-tastic.

Once again woebegone, Little Ben, addressed the depths of his mug in a hoarse voice. “So what you’re saying is either I forfeit half of Nevermore to the bank or sell a third to the city…..This is going to kill Pop.”

And there it is…The proverbial fork in the road. No matter which route we choose – we lose…and Josie wins.

Getting up from the table, I limped to the liquor closet.

“Good idea, I think we could all use a nip of something…” Beatrice’s initial thumbs-up morphed to horror when she spotted what I actually pulled from her cupboard dedicated to fermented grape and grain. “You stashed that, in there?”

“I’ll decontaminate the closet later, I promise.” 

“Drinking glitter-infused alcohol is not a thing.”

“I don’t know…” Leo countered, clearly succumbing to a wistful reverie. “….Goldschlager is pretty tasty.”

Head down, I bit my lip to keep them from curving upwards. Mr. John Dupree, undoubtedly sensing our sudden descent in the direction of pure whimsy, pulled us up short.

“What’s that?”

Meeting his gaze with a half-smile, I told him. 

“Door number three.” 

Demands

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This was the pic the Naturalist’s Club & The Historical Society chose to place in the Daily Harvest – right above their list of demands in order to bring their sit-in to a conclusion…Damned I wish I could find Big Ben…

2.57 The Forest Standing Beyond The Trees

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My mind, needing to take five from the quagmire sitting in the front room, chose this moment to focus on fashion or the lack thereof present in my wardrobe. On the upside, the absence of couture from my closet meant I landed on a palette pretty quickly – basic black. It covers nearly every contingency…right? From date night’s little black dress to a cat burglar’s costume to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work uniform – the color arising from the absence of light has range. 

(Plus, it doesn’t show bloodstains…should any stabby feelings get out of hand…)

Pulling out a nearly new black scoop neck t-shirt, jet colored jeans, and matching inky accoutrements from my dresser, it didn’t take long before I was attempting a three-pointer with my balled-up pj’s (using my hamper as the basket).

Standing at the end of my bed, toeing on my tangerine tinted sneaker (because a girls gotta have some flare) without bothering to undo the laces, my eyes fell on the magnificence of Squiddy ensconced betwixt two un-cracked classics penned by Melville and Verne, respectively. Lifting him from his place of honor, I rubbed the stitches of a random arm ruminatively for an indeterminate amount of time before absentmindedly settling him on my head and exiting my room.

The fact I’d only managed to shove my right shoe on didn’t register until I was halfway down the hallway. 

Whereupon, the wintery chill radiating up from my unshod left foot finally overrode my preoccupation enough to reorient my attention onto the frostbitten slice of the back garden… Made visible by the wide yawn of the front door. Warmed by the magma surging from my heart to the surface of my skin, the heat continued to intensify in response to the string of four-letter words I used to describe Little Ben. Darting forward to (presumably) help Beatrice stop him from leaving the Lavender Lady, I nearly tripped over my own feet, skidding to a stop as the pair darkened our doorstep.

Breath bellowing around the assortment of file boxes piled up past their eyes, they huffed and puffed their way back inside – Beatrice hooking an ankle along the bottom corner of the door and pulling it closed. Neither noticed me gaping at them, thanks to their sky-high burdens and conversation.

“…she’s just like Pop. They’d both rather loose a limb than sell a square inch of Nevermore.”

“Someone wants to buy Nevermore?” Beatrice’s distaste shown clearly in her voice.

“The city, they sent over an offer yesterday. That’s why I’m here. Because selling is the only solution the Board of Managers is willing to entertain and the loan’s due on Monday…” 

This new sliver of data slipped seamlessly into the larger mosaic I’d constructed in my mind. Causing the rest of their exchange to skim over my eardrums without sending a single syllable up to my brain – because I could finally, almost, see the forest for the trees. Fiddling with Squiddy’s tentacle, I soon found myself staring at the brass borderline that separate hardwood of the hallway from the luxurious rug of the living room.

“Phoebe, are you alright?”

Jerking my eyes upward, I found Little Ben’s face wearing an odd assortment of expressions (concern amongst them). Beatrice, on the other hand, looked highly amused. 

“Um, what? I’m fine.” Giving her an absent nod, I transferred my attention to Little Ben – who took the opportunity (probably buoyed up by the distinct lack of shouting, cursing, and visible disappointment) to start stammering out an apology.

“Look, Morticia, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

Holding up my index finger, I pressed onwards past his regret onto more pertinent matters. “Ben, this loan that’s put Nevermore in harm’s way, it wouldn’t be from Western Regional Bank, would it?

“How did you know?”

Unable to stymie a sly smile from creeping across my face, it met Beatrice’s raised eyebrow and grew a bit wider still. “Do you think Mr. John Dupree would be willing to come over and work with us? ASAP?”

“You’ve got it?” 

“Not exactly, but I see our first two moves.” Beatrice returned my sly smile with a smirk of her own. 

“Good enough for me, I’ll make a call. Though you might want to lose the hat gnawing on your eyebrows and find your other shoe before Dupree arrives.….” Stepping away from the heap of boxes at her hip, she strode across the hall into her office – only this time shutting the door firmly behind her. 

Shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, Little Ben waited until after Beatrice left to start peppering me with questions. “Who is this Dupree fellow, why do we need him, and what have you got?”

Following my roommate’s advice, I slid the cephalopod, who’d quietly dipped low enough on my forehead to cover my eyebrows, off my head. Contemplating the stitches binding Squiddy’s fin to the rest of his body, I searched for the proper tone and phrase for my next set of words. 

“Here’s the deal Ben, I don’t know if we can hold Nevermore together, but we’re going to try.”

Looking more relieved than he ought to since I could only barely make out the forest, Little Ben started tripping over his words again. “I…You…Thank you, Morticia. It’s more than…I’ve got all the loan documents here, and I brought every scrap of paper from Pop’s desk and his safe. I didn’t know if they could help, but….”

“Super, we’ll start looking them over in a minute.” Giving the file boxes the barest of glances, I moved on to address the elephant in light leather shoes teetering precariously on the highwire stretching between us. 

“But first things first, Ben, you need to make me Nevermore’s Caretaker again.”

2.56 Well Hell…..

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Gobsmacked is such a lovely word. 

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

Gobsmacked.

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

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

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

“Actually, he belongs to my roommate Beatrice.”

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

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

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

“I don’t know where to start.”

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

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

“Nevermore’s in trouble.”

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

“How?”

“I took out a loan…”

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

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

“No, I paid cash for the land.” 

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

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

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

A barely audible “yes” reached my ears.

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

“So, what’s changed?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the penalty if you default?”

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

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

“I had to secure the loan.”

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

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

“Enough.”

“Do. Better. Ben.”

“Half.”

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

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

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

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

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

2.55 Saturday’s Child Works Hard for a Living

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Earlier in the evening, as the rest of us participated in a respectful squabble over Ira’s intention to fetch further and more definitive proof of Sarah’s guilt, Leo was entertaining an entirely different line of reasoning. 

(One he thankfully elucidated to the group prior to Ira leaving the Lavender Lady since it provided me with the perfect cover for ensuring Ira’s safety! It’s not that Leo, Robbie, or Ira doubted either what I saw of the conclusions I’d drawn – they just found it challenging to picture Sarah in such a dim light. But back to Leo’s dilemma….)

How on earth could we convince Little Ben he’s being eased along a primrose path?

It didn’t matter how many deductions, recordings, or eyewitness accounts we gathered. Little Ben would surely dismiss them out of hand the second he discovered I had generated the majority of them. Undoubtedly, he’d perceive my suspicions as a massive case of sour grapes due to my dismissal and his subsequent ‘success’. 

Subtracting me from the equation wouldn’t work either.

Challenging his manipulation of the Board of Managers would fall just as flat. With Big Ben still in the wind and the Board itself controlled by Little Ben, Sarah, and Nathaniel – he’d turn defensive and, therefore, deaf the second we mentioned his sins.

Leaving us in the weeds – because if we can’t get Little Ben to see the ruinous route he’s traveling – it doesn’t matter a whit what we know. Arriving at this last stop of his train of thought left Leo feeling flummoxed, and the rest of us ready to spout mild abuse whilst he continued to relentlessly radda-tap-tap the edge of Little Ben’s business card against the tabletop.

Fortunately, before his syncopated beat produced a four-letter-word from any of us, he stopped. 

Not because he realized the rest of were ready to reach across the table and rip the card from his fingers. But on account of the theory, Beatrice and I gave regarding the Stradivarius violin. 

This was an angle we could work, which might actually work…

“Are you hoping to persuade Little Ben with the power of your deductions or the brilliance of your arts and crafts?” 

Carefully placing the glue tipped piece of yarn onto the poster-board, I cautiously raised my index finger and was pleased when the fibers failed to follow. Looking over my shoulder, I saw my unusually perky roommate standing in the kitchen doorway in her pajamas and afflicted with an epic case of bedhead. 

“Something can work on two levels.” Shooting a grin at her skeptical snort, I continued. “Little Ben’s a visual learner, I though a diagram might help him grasp what we found last night.”

Plus, I couldn’t fall back asleep after waking up at a quarter to five this morning.

Pausing next to me for a moment before heading to the percolator, Beatrice surveyed my work, then pointed at the upper right-hand corner where I’d placed Agata’s photo. “You might need a smidge more glitter, right there.”

“You think?” Standing back, I scrutinized my handiwork with a critical eye. 

Obviously choking back a chuckle. “No.”

“Okay, so I went a hair crazy.”

Watching Beatrice out of the corner of my eye, my heart fluttered for a second when she swiped a fingertip across the kitchen counter and then carefully scrutinize it. Crap. Staring down at my creation, with the same intensity a cat regards a bowl of ice cream, I endeavored to ignore the weight of Beatrice’s narrow gaze. 

Catching my furtive glance thru the fringe of my bangs, her inner Queen Victoria ‘I am Not amused’ face forced me to revise my previous statement. “A smidge crazy?”

Please don’t let her look in the sink – I haven’t had a chance to wash away the unicorn sick yet. 

(Seriously, that’s what it looks like.)

In my defense, after a tiny, minuscule, microscopic amount of glitter spilled off the poster-board onto the kitchen table as I rotated it. (So the Elmer’s glue received an even coat of the sparkly stuff.) I decided to work over the sink. This brilliant idea meant I needed to move the poster-board and its mounds of excess glitter to the sink….

Superfine glitter + giant sneeze = a dazzling kitchen. 

Honestly, it would’ve coated the kitchen no matter where the sneeze happened, and I did my best to clean it up…but once glitter tastes freedom, it’s a bit like a tribble with a steady food source and no predators – it multiplies rapidly. (And who doesn’t enjoy the odd sparkle festooning their person?…………………………Right? It certainly makes the multicolored macaroons on my flannel pajamas pop and spark.)

Fishing out the woven trivet from under my crafting supplies, Beatrice set down the fresh pot of coffee and joined me at the table. “Luckily, Ms. Hettie will completely understand why I need to burn down the house.”

“Ha. Ha.” Placing dot of glue on the poster-board, I held the ball of yarn above it and snipped off the correct length, connecting Sarah’s photo to Rye High’s 1998 Prom Queen. “I’ll bet you a five-spot Ms. Hettie is secretly a fan of glitter.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Think of those sweatshirts she constantly wears. Nearly all of them have little glitter or metallic paint or small rhinestones on them.”

“Huh. There might be something in that…” Sipping her mug of coffee, Beatrice leaned forward for a closer look at my work.

Turning the entire board 180 degrees, so she didn’t get a crick in her neck, I watched Beatrice’s hovering finger trace the strands of yarn I’d used to highlight the links between Josie and her collaborators. “You’d think they’d have been more careful in concealing their roles in Josie’s scheme.”

Rising from the table, I stepped over to the sink to rinse the old coffee from my mug (while also taking a moment to swish, splash and swash the water around in an attempt to disperse the glitter glaze currently coating it). “Honestly, I don’t think it ever crossed Josie’s mind that anyone would go looking – as everyone but Sarah has at least one degree of separation dividing their actions from scrutiny.”

“Any clue why she’s trying to undermine Nevermore?”

Before I could form an answer, our front door reverberated under an energetic knock – that kept going for several beats longer than Ms. Manners would ever countenance.

Looking at each other, we uttered the same sentence together. “Are you expecting someone?”

In a stunning display, that would’ve beat Wood’s personal best, Beatrice pounced. “Jinx! You owe me a Coke!” Shooting me a mischievous grin, she scooted around the table in the direction of the front door, leaving me to follow silently in her wake – trying to recall if we’d said Ms. Hettie’s name three times out loud.

Pausing to look thru the peephole, Beatrice started slightly. “Morticia, when did you say Little Ben was stopping by?”

Released from the jinx, I glanced at my watch. “One, why?”

“Well, prepare yourself.” Unbolting the door, Beatrice swung it open, revealing Little Ben standing on our doormat.

“Is Morticia home?”

Stepping around my roommate, unwittingly shielding her from the stiff northerly breeze that decided now was the time to start nipping at my bare toes, it also forcibly reminded me I was still wearing pajamas. “Ben, what are you doing here? We aren’t supposed to get together until one.” 

Shifting his weight between his feet, a flush creeping across his face, he glanced around for a second before stumbling over some stunning words. “I…I…..I’ve got….There’s a problem with Nevermore, and I don’t know what to do, and I can’t wait…..because I really need your help.”

Utterly astonished, I stepped back from the door and let Little Ben in.

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