(Breathing fire and spitting glass – that’s how I felt seeing him after so long!)
A booming, rolling velvety laugh crashed into my furious roar in the middle of the room. “Well, that puts me in my place, doesn’t it.” Still chuckling, Big Ben wiped his eyes with a square of linen he extracted from his back pocket before beckoning me forward again.
Refusing to let his good humor (as well as my own relief at seeing him hail, whole and inside Nevermore) melt my temper, my sneakers remained rooted in place. “I’ve got a fair bit more for you, you jerk. Where the hell have you been? Why didn’t you call me? I’ve been worried sick…..”
Holding both palms in the air in surrender, Big Ben took a step back. “I’m sorry Kiddo, I really am, I didn’t mean to stay away so long.” Glancing at his son, who stood in a miserable silence next to him, the creases in Big Ben’s face grew deeper. Looking every bit as old as his seventy-eight years, Big Ben folded himself into one of the wingbacks set in front of the fire and motioned me towards its’ mate. “Please, sit.”
Still feeling more than a little mutinous, I eschewed the proffered chair, choosing to let the blazing fire in the hearth warm the backs of my legs instead.
“Junior, why don’t you get us a bucket of ice, a bottle of rum, and three glasses from the kitchen. I need a second alone with Phoebe.” Looking more than happy to escape, Little Ben silently did as he was bid, hustling rapidly out of the room. Following his progeny’s hasty exit, Big Ben transferred his gaze up to mine – and cut the legs out from under my next tirade. “I apologize for not calling you, I wanted to….doesn’t matter now.” Waving aside his own thoughts, he regrouped and moved on. “What does matter is I owe you many explanations and a much better apology, which I’m planning on providing. But first, we need to talk about the right mess Junior’s made of Nevermore…”
“Ice cube trays are empty.” Glasses in one hand and a stout bottle in the other Little Ben traipsed back into the room. “I offered Pop my resignation right before tore in here.”
Recoiling at the unexpected humility from Little Ben, I banked my ire.
Dropping into the high-backed leather chair across from Big Ben, I silently reveled in the light scorching my skin received from the hot fabric. “You didn’t accept it, did you?” Taking the offered empty glass from Little Ben, I ignored the light flickering off the gilt-edged Halloween illustration in favor of watching his dad. Who studied me shrewdly in return, before cracking a sly smile and the bottle open. “After what he’s told me about the state of things, is there a reason why I shouldn’t?”
Unable to repress the sigh that started somewhere around my knees, I held out my glass for a splash of rum and waited for Little Ben to finish pulling up a chair. “There’s more than enough blame for everyone to shoulder their fair share…” After giving Big Ben a hard stare, I shifted it onto the fire in the grate. “…but Ben’s portion needs to be distributed among a few more people.”
“I don’t understand.” Feeling Little Ben tense next to me, I gave him a small, sad smile.
“Tell me, who’s idea was it to lay me off?”
Settling into his chair, Little Ben considered my question for a moment before holding his glass out towards his dad. “After Sarah gave me Pop’s letter promoting me to Provisional Proprietor, she took me out for a celebratory beer, and we got to talking. I kinda moaned about you being on the Board of Managers, because I thought you’d stifle all my good ideas…” Hunching his shoulders, Little Ben skirted past the rest of his past-self’s less than sterling thoughts on my disposition. “…then Sarah said something weird because I thought you guys were tight, she kind of suggested you couldn’t smother any idea of mine if I appointed someone else Caretaker.”
Swirling the dark liquid in his glass, Big Ben unexpectedly focused on a different portion of his son’s story. “Why did Sarah give you the letter?”
Frowning slightly, Little Ben followed it up with a shrug. “Leo was out on vacation, and his fill-in accidentally put it in her box.”
“Did she open it, before you did Junior?”
“Yeah, she wasn’t paying attention when she was going thru her mail and accidentally opened it. She ran it up to me right after she figured out her mistake….Why are you looking at me like that, Morticia?”
Snapping my jaw closed with an audible click, I took a quick slug of my drink. “Big Ben, when did you send the letter?”
“Last day of June.”
Eyebrows drawn together and confusion plain on his face, Little Ben countered his father. “You must be mistaken, I didn’t get the letter until September.”
Closing my eyes, I fit this piece of the puzzle in place, and finally saw the forest for the trees. “Don’t worry Ben, you’re both right.” Opening them back up, I rotated my head on my shoulders and looked Little Ben in the eye. “You’re going to want to refill your glass before I start because there’s no way I can sugarcoat this for you…” Watching father and son exchange identically uneasy looks, they both followed my advice and topped off their tumblers. “At some point, between when Big Ben sent his letter, and you received it – Sarah fell in with Josie Reville. Together they laid out a con – to take advantage of both your dad’s absence and your zeal, to break Nevermore apart.”
“Phoebe….” Swiveling my head, I watched (with some fascination) the knuckles of Big Ben’s hand, holding the glass of golden liquid, turned white. “…how sure of this, are you sure?”
“I don’t know all the whys and wherefores, but I’ve got a pretty good grasp on the broad strokes.”