Tag Archives: blog fiction

2.15.b A Tale of Two Paths

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(Okay, I didn’t have time to take a pic of Muck Duck Pond. But the wary distrust of this duck gives you an idea of how the mallards felt today when I disturbed them…)

Have you ever read The Family Circus? 

Growing up, it was one of my must-read comic strips in the Daily Harvest’s funny pages (FoxTrot, Far Side, Garfield, and Blondie, were the others I read religiously – in case you’re wondering). 

One of my favorite reoccurring bits? When Billy takes five-thousand steps to complete a five-hundred step chore.

Meaning? When asked by an adult to complete a simple task, like gather firewood. He would wander hither, thither, and yon before finally finishing. (He didn’t lollygag per se, but felt following a straight line the least exciting accomplish anything). To demonstrate Billy’s meanderings, the illustrator, Bill Keane, would draw a dotted line highlighting the roundabout route, Billy took to complete his errand. 

My original path from the house to the family plot would’ve made Billy proud, full of zigzags, backtracking, and detours. It was delightfully circuitous. The way Ina Von Haeville chose for my return trip was its’ complete antithesis. With a single-minded determination (to thwart the three sisters from finding IT, whatever IT is), she strode in an unswerving straight line thru the garden without heeding a single one of my pleas or curses. 

Which explains how three-ish hours after breaking free of the walled garden, I stood staring at that forking fourteen-inch gap between the gate and its post again – decorated with muck well past to my knees and missing a shoe – angry as an adder whose naps been disturbed.

Tossing my tattered coat, sweaty scarf, and mud smudged backpack thru the gate first, I slithered thru the slender gap after them.

Ina Von Haeville (pacing at the door): “Took you long enough.”

Ignoring her waspish stare, I concentrated on reassembling my ensemble.

Ina Von Haeville (shepherding me towards the door): “IT’s just on the other side…”

Me (taking a deep breath): “Fantastic, the door’s locked.”

Emitting a derisive laugh, she pointed to a gap in the eave just above my head.

Ina Von Haeville (tapping the woodwork to emphasize her point): “There’s a spare key right here. My grandmother Lily hid one here because she kept locking herself out, those girls never listened to my stories, I’m sure it’s still there.”

Me (staring at decades worth of spider webs clogging the opening): “No. Absolutely not. I’m not reaching blindly into a dirty, spider filled hidey-hole for a key which may or may not be there.”

Ina Von Haeville (wrinkling her nose): “I don’t think anyone will notice the extra dirt.”

Me (exhaling very slowly): “I got filthy following you.”

Ina Von Haeville (eyeing me): “Really? I just thought this was your normal state.”

Seriously? Who did she know that sported this much mud spread about their person? Did she miss my swearing a blue streak while leading me thru Muck Duck Pond? (Yes, with real-life ducks, Mallards if I’m not mistaken.) 

Me (taking a deep breath): “I’m going to try a window.”

I studied the back of the house while putting some space between us striving to reign in my annoyance. Why didn’t I think of this plan previously? With the number of panes missing from the windows, there must be a gap near a latch. 

Ina Von Haeville (chillily): “We don’t have time for this.”

Me (flipping open my pocket knife while approaching the most likely candidate): “Black Widow bites may not bother you, but they do me.”

Ina Von Haeville: “Fine.”

A second later, goosebumps swept across my skin, followed by the sound of metal tinkling against stone.

Ina Von Haeville (pointing to walk): “The key was right where I said it was.”

Me (out of the corner of my eye, I spied it lying on the pavement): “So it was.”

Pulling a hankie from my pocket, I poured half of the tin of hand-cut sea salt into the center. Then, I placed the grungy key into the mound and started rubbing the grime away. Unhappy with the pause in our progress, Ina Von Haeville pushed past me into the kitchen, where she resumed her pacing.

Eventually, I followed her inside. Keeping my ears peeled for any telltale sounds of the search party’s presence, I met her in the middle of the floor.

Ina Von Haeville: “Do you promise never to allow any of those girls to lay a finger on what I’m going to give you?”

Me (shivering in the cold despite myself): “I promise.”

Ina Von Haeville (weighing my words): “Over there is the broom closet, open the door. On the left-hand side of the top shelf, there’s small knothole missing its center, hook your little finger through it, and pull down.”

Standing on my tiptoes, I groped around until I discovered the aforementioned knot and yanked – fighting the unoiled hinge – it finally gave way with one protracted squeak (which I’m ninety percent certain didn’t come from catching a mouse’s tail in the mechanism). 

Revealing…a secret nook? 

I suppose every old house has at least one – a removable baseboard, hollow stair, a hidden closet shelf – why not a secret compartment in a broom closet? 

Question is what’s inside? Coins, stamps, needles, buttons, or a tarot card collection – the possibilities abound…

Ina Von Haeville: “IT’s three inches to your left.”

The answer? A dense film of dust (which only enhanced my current spot-on impression of Pigpen from Peanuts – another of my funny pages faves) and one small wooden box.

Huh.

Not what I was expecting, but it makes sense. Aunt Pearl gave me something similar the day I moved into Nevermore’s Caretaker’s Cottage – only mine is made of tin.

Ina Von Haeville (trumpeting): “The last Von Haeville tradition left.”

After using my slightly soiled hankie to wipe away as much of the grime as it would hold, I opened it up, much to my companion’s delight.

Ina Von Haeville: “The Von Haeville secret family recipes! Lily’s blue ribbon winning quince jelly, Herman’s famous mornay sauce, all of them. Even the apple pie recipe that won me first place at the state fair! Every Von Haeville is given a box on their sixteenth birthday, this is the last copy, and I’m giving it to you.”

Me (quietly): “Thank you, but why me?”

Ina Von Haeville (wreathed in her first genuine smile): There isn’t any other way of keeping our recipes out of the dustheap; either the girls would toss them like they did David’s or the wreckers will destroy them when they pull down the house. I’d rather they get used by someone who obviously enjoys eating…

The last part of her sentence was lost under what sounded like a herd of turtles heading our way.

Ina Von Haeville: “They must have taken the back stairs! Quick, hide It!”

Without a word, I slipped her secret family recipe box into my pack and zipped it closed. Then did a quick scan of the kitchen – an unmistakable muddy line lead the eye to the closet.

Well, that won’t due….

Ina Von Haeville (flabbergasted): “What on earth are you doing?”

Ignoring her, I continued to channel my inner Billy and ran around the kitchen like a chicken with its’ head cut off – leaving a dotted line in my wake – as my shoe and sock were still sopping from my trek thru Muck Duck Pond.

Obfuscation complete, I waited for Beatrice and her search party to join us.

2.15.a An Inadvertent Introduction

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(Rough map of the Von Haeville family plot.)

Ina Von Haeville: “Cat got your tongue girl? What do you think you’re doing?”

Letting my hand fall to my side, I opened my eyes and noticed that Ina’s nails were painted the same rosy shade as her suit.

Ina Von Haeville (leaning over the headstone towards me her brow set in a scowl): “Well? Answer Me!”

Moving my gaze up from her painted nails to her narrowing eyes, my brain understood she was suffering, however, countering her curdled tone with honey in mine proved difficult.  

Me (my breath fuming the frigid air): “Good afternoon! My name’s Phoebe Arden. I’m completing a survey for the Rye Historical Society. As I’m sure you’re aware, they hold a geological interest in the county’s most venerated families. I’m here gathering information for their records.”

Levering myself upright, my eyes never wavering from hers, I flipped open my notebook and showed her my work. 

Ina Von Haeville (studying my rough sketch): “This is what’s left of my family.”

Me: “What about the three sisters?”

Ina Von Haeville: “Their Von Haeville’s in name only! David adopted those girls the day he married their mother. She never bothered learning our family traditions, so neither did they!”

For not being genetically related, they sure seem to share a similar sour center.

Ina Von Haeville (the ambient temperature around her plunging): “You’re not related to Elizabeth, Mary or Catherine – are you?”

Those are the weird sister’s names? I’d imagined at least would be a derivative of Hecate.

Me (swallowing my tart retorts with a smile while trying not to shiver): “Not as far as I know. My mother was a Becker before she married my father. He’s originally from Bangor, Maine. So I doubt there’s any cross over there.”

Ina Von Haeville (eyes glazing over): “Thought not. Those three have no sense of family loyalty! They sold the house, my great grandfather built. Oh Maud….”

Turning away, Ina started back towards her mottled green bench. 

Crap.

Me (putting some punch in my voice): “I saw the Von Haeville sisters in the house this morning. They brought in an expert and tools…”

Well, that was the exact wrong/right thing to say (and mostly true).

Ina Von Haeville (jerking to a stop): “Tools? They’re going to find it! What are we going to do? What are we going to do!?….”

Fuming and fretting Ina paced in tighter and tighter circles around the central stone slab while repeating the question over and over again. While she boiled and bubbled, I slipped my notes back into my pack and slung it over my shoulder. When my breath started forming a fume, I knew her attention was squarely back on me…

Ina Von Haeville (with a curled lip): “You look like you enjoy eating.”

Seriously? Swiping at my weight? I’m no bean pole, but my hips aren’t that wide…

Me (grinding my teeth): “Yes, I’ve been known to enjoy a meal.”

Ina Von Haeville (smirking at my admission): “I thought so.”

A tepid breeze blew past me momentarily when indecision crept across her face. 

Ina Von Haeville (softly): “There’s no other way, Maud…If you promise never to let those girls lay a hand on it, I will give it to you.”

Me: “It?”

Ina Von Haeville (voice wavering): “The only Von Haeville tradition they’ve left intact. “

Blind promises are always risky…Plus, how horrible can it be? Wait, don’t answer that.

Me: “I promise.”

Please don’t let it be what Beatrice was hired to find…..

Ina Von Haeville (turning on her heel): “Follow me.”

Birdies

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This is one of the members of the dynasty of kinglets that flitted around as I past thru the narrow gap in the gate, in the garden and family plot! Shame they didn’t seem interested in eating spiders…

2.14.a Another Reason To Loath This Day?

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SPIDER! 

Spider! Spider! Spider!

Spider in my hair!

Crap! Crap! Crap! 

Scrubbing the dewy web I’d walked thru energetically from my face, I started inwardly cursing the lack of essential maintenance to the manor. A second later, when my nerve ending perceived eight legs scuttling over my scalp, my curses turned audible (and rather blue), while I attempted to dissuade the arachnid from remaining on my person. Which sounds way classier than reality – which featured more face scrubbing, hair fluffing, hasty outwear removal, and thrashing about trying to fling Aragog off me. (Aragog, Hagrid’s spider friend from Harry Potter and the approximate size of the bloodthirsty predator I’d spied lying in wait in its’ web a nanosecond before my forward momentum carried me thru it.)

Shaking my coat out vigorously and venting, “Forking spiders! Why are there always spiders? And why can’t Errants ever be easy? And those stupid forking Von Haeville sisters! Locking me out!…”

“Loathsome children, no better than their mother, really. No appreciation for family traditions…” The woman’s voice trailed off into a low murmur.

The unexpected agreement from a reedy voice the other side of the wildly untrimmed hedgerow cut my own spleen short. Standing on my tiptoes and craning my neck, I managed to catch a glimpse of a rusty row of wrought iron spear tops peaking thru the foliage. The sight of the barrier lifted an invisible weight off my shoulder (or perhaps my fanged foe leapt off, either way, they felt better), Beatrice mentioned in passing something about a family plot on the property didn’t she? 

Taking a deep breath, I pulled my coat on and gave my backpack and scarf a good shake – just in case. (I do not want that brown behemoth moving in and making my ear canal its new abode.) 

Standing back, I scrutinized the tall feral hedge. There two yards ahead, an inch of burnt orange poking out – a gate latch. Keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the oxidized iron, I took a careful step forward, unwilling to tangle with more artfully strung gossamer spun at exactly face height…

….Again…..Today. 

In point of fact, I’d walked thru three other (hopefully) unoccupied webs while dodging mossy statues, thorny bushes, and standing water. The water, a well-camouflaged puddle, I’d actually encountered first and avoided as successfully as that last bit of spider silk. The resulting moist pant cuffs, socks, and shoes (if you’re going to do something, do it well) lead to me stumbled around this unintended labyrinth for the better part of an hour trying to hone in on my first impression. 

Numb toes aren’t frustrating at all.

Also not frustrating? The hedge. Left to its own devices for so long, its’ swallowed up the open gate and the entrance once cut into it. 

Fantastic, now I get to go where spiders live (webs are just where they hunt). Stupid. Forking. Day.

Psyching myself up, I plunged headlong into and thru the green garden border. (Probably not the wisest thing to do, diving in headlong, but the thought of hidden spiders threatened to dissolve my nerve.)

2.12 Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around

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(Yeah a case and less documents would’ve made today so much easier…)

“Beatrice, seriously, you need to either roll that up or move it onto your lap, otherwise I am stopping the Princess, and you’re going to sit in the backseat!”

Thank the gods Mr. John Dupree had taken one look at the Princess and decided to meet us there! As amusing as it would have been to watch him try to fit his frame in my tiny VW Rabbit (and listen to his overly starch suit crinkle) – I was glad I had the option of shoving Beatrice back there!

Why? I quickly discovered, without ever having once wondered, that I cannot drive with architectural plans strewn over the dash, the stick shift, and propped up against my person! I need to see thru my whole windshield, not just a narrow field – call me silly, but being able to see a granny crossing the road is a real concern at the moment (the members of the Senior Center would not be amused if I hit a fellow octiginarian….).

A variant of this conversation had been going on for the last twenty-five miles.

But in all seriousness, I now understand why Mr. John Dupree made sure I signed a legally binding contract before chauffeuring Beatrice. (Come to think of it I don’t think I’d ever ridden with her before, we usually met up someplace…..well the things you learn on micro-sized road trips.)

It also explains why he hadn’t volunteered for the duty himself and why my salary for a single day’s work was so generous.

“Beatrice, seriously, study another, smaller piece of paper I am begging you, or I am pulling over your choice.” Carefully I started steering the Princess towards the shoulder, devoutly hoping my tires weren’t heading directly at a ditch.

Somewhere from behind the castle of paper, I heard a muttered, “Fine!” This was followed immediately by copious amounts of rustling, which reminded me of squirrels running through the fallen leaves in our backyard. Eventually, Beatrice emerged from behind a plethora of documentation.

“Why don’t you load all this onto your tablet so you can study it easier?”

Capping the highlighter, “Because clients like this count on discretion. They don’t want to risk someone finding out that their dear old great grandad might have left a stash of racy love letters lying around. So they want analog – which means lots of paper.” 

“This doesn’t appear more secure…” Thankfully she finally shifted the blueprints obscuring the windscreen onto her lap.

“It isn’t, but Dupree couldn’t convince them that no one was actually interested enough in their dirty laundry to hack into his servers.” Her voice dry as dust on the subject of today’s clients. Shaking her head, “If they’d drop the original plans off the first time I asked for them, we might have enjoyed the drive.”

Which, now that I could finally witness it in wide angles was rather lovely, all evergreens, frost tipped grass, farm animals and rustic houses. We’d left the outskirts of Rye about fifty minutes ago, and according to my phone, we had another ten to go before we reached our destination. 

Still nosing through the documents, which in concession to my not so muffled grumblings she kept below the dash (but were still resting against my shoulder/thigh/elbow), “I thought you’d be more curious about my other job.”

“I was, right up until you smacked me in the head with a ten-pound roll of paper and then used me as an easel for over an hour.” 

“Yes, that could kill one’s curiosity…” Contrition colored her words (but only a small portion of the papers changed positions).

Noticing (in my delightfully unimpeded peripheral vision) her cheeks turning pink, I threw her a bone, “So why do you need so many architectural drawings?”

Slightly bemused, Beatrice answered, “They tell me where the bones of the house are, which in turn gives me a solid starting point.”

Waiting for a beat, “Starting point? For what?”

“To find what they’ve lost.” 

2.11 The Man At The Door

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Do I look shifty? Really, I’d like to know. 

I might occasionally harbor the odd larcenous thought about a book – but I never follow up on them – I just enjoy entertaining the fancy. 

It’s mental calisthenics. Right?

Okay, okay, I am starting in the middle, so let’s go back to the beginning.

Last night Beatrice offered me a sterling opportunity to make a couple of coins while chauffeuring her around for her other job. I didn’t tell her I would have driven her for free if it meant getting out of the house and putting on real pants, but I kept that information to myself. 

Which explains why at a quarter of eight, I’m in the Map Room (waiting for Beatrice) contemplating a shelf full of previously empty vases. (The ones which formerly housed her rubber ducky collection that she’d acquired while geocaching – before we lost the bulk of them during our pirate shenanigans). Those empty vases had nagged at me ever since Beatrice had donated her yellow friends to the cause. She wouldn’t accept money or sincere thanks, so instead – to show my appreciation – I filled them to the brim with homemade hard candy. The crinkly cellophane and rainbow of translucent colors really tied the rest of the kitsch of the room together! 

With a happy smile decorating my face, I scrabbled under the table to retrieve a few of the free spirits which had decided that living in a vase wasn’t for them.

While on all fours amongst the dining set’s legs, a quick radda-tap-tap sounded at the door – followed by the entrance of a pair of black wingtips and charcoal grey cuffed pants. “Hello?” I called out while trying to negotiate my way out from under the furniture while gripping two handfuls of candy – who were determined to stay where I found them.

“Beatrice? Why are you under the table?” 

A loud thunk punctuated the question, but before I could dispel Mr. Wingtip’s misapprehension, his lovely baritone pattered on, “When you rejoin the land of the standing, I have three possible contracts for you. Two in town, one cross country. RAM cut the check for the return of the Renoir, I have it here for you. Are you still firm on your no pets policy? You could make a mint. I had six inquiries just last week. I drew up the paperwork you requested last night….” 

Finally, solving the maze of table legs, I stood up and discovered Mr. Wingtips was a lean whip of a man who, when wearing his hat, must brush the Map Room’s ceiling. 

He finally looked up when I set the crinkling handfuls of candy down on the table, “You are not Beatrice.” 

Trying to put him at ease, I held out my empty hand and smiled, “Nope, but she should be here any minute. My name is Phoebe, Phoebe Arden. I’m Beatrice’s roommate and driver for the day!” 

Whisking the papers he’d fanned out over the table back into his briefcase, he snapped it resolutely closed, all the while ignoring my outstretched hand.

Using a tone that wasn’t precisely ill-mannered, but edging in that direction, “You should have told me you weren’t Beatrice.” He crossed his arms and watched me thru narrow eyes.

(See?! I did not do anything suspicious! He’s just bent out of shape because he made a gaffe!) 

“You didn’t give me a chance to tell you. Nor did you wait for me to answer the door after you knocked.” Mirroring his stance (though he loomed much more effectively than I) but not his tone, I leaned more towards genial reasonability.

My words cut no ice with the bespoke man.

“Well, I see you two’ve met…” Beatrice’s dry comment cut thru the tension. Things turned technical at this point with the snappy man reopening his briefcase (and resumed his nattering) while Beatrice smoothed things over and provided introductions. 

Turns out the natty man of the black wingtips was, in fact, John Dupree of Treuawley, Trenaman, and Dupree. 

Whose demeanor visibly thawed while watching me sign a stack of papers he’d prepared. Which, when boiled down to their essence – stated that I needed to keep my trap shut about anything I see, hear or smell (?) while accompanying Beatrice on a job. (Why it took ten pages, three signatures and twelve separate initials to say, I don’t know – but he stated he wanted to “keep things formal”). 

(I aim to please.)

He then handed over pounds of assorted document and blueprints for Beatrice to review (which is why she needed a driver), and we headed out to execute today’s contract (their words, not mine).

Just Desserts

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Wow, Mr. Grindle’s sins were worse than I’d ever dreamt. Not only did he murder his wife and her lover – he went on two murder two more women he dated!

I wonder if the Woman In White knew what he did.

In any case he’ll never see the sky as a free man agin.

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