Tag Archives: finder of lost things

2.64 Paper Faces On Parade

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(Okay, this isn’t the view from the Proprietor’s Office – but it does a great job of showing the two properties of glass.)

Leaning against the bookcase before the floor to ceiling windows, I watched the golden rays of dawn touch the tips of the trees on the other side of the pane. The shifting mist, rolling below the tree boughs yet just above the blades of grass, would melt away once the sunbeams reached it – but until then, the billowing grey shrouded Nevermore in an eerie haze. Wrapping my arms around my shoulders, I snuggled into the soft folds of my wool sweater and felt a wave of happiness ripple thru me. My elation swelled for a moment as I promised myself a lingering ramble across the grounds, then sadly broke apart upon the jagged rocks of reality when a presumptive rap sounded against the door.

Without waiting for an answer, Sarah strolled purposely into the Proprietor’s office. 

“Ben, I know you don’t want to, but we need to vote on the City’s offer first thing. Once we can show Western Mutual the pending numbers, I’m sure they’ll delay the loan call so the sale can go through…”

Big Ben’s only guidance in dealing with Sarah was to remind me: “You and I both know the Reville’s ability to charm, flatter, and persuade people into performing considerably outside of their natures. So take that into account when you tot up her betrayal against your friendship.”

Remaining still, I shifted my perspective off the vista beyond the glass to the room it reflected. A fair amount of confusion flickered over Sarah’s face at the absences of chaos. Little Ben and Leo finished transferring the pipe-dream-dream-boards, avalanche of papers, and mountains of binders back to Little Ben’s old office about an hour and a half ago – just in time for our first meeting, with Nathaniel.

“Why did you move everything? And where did….” Swiveling her head down the length of the conference table, it didn’t take but a moment for her gaze to work its way over to the desk – and find me standing behind it.

In the split second it took me to turn towards her, she’d jettisoned the shock from her visage and exchanged it for mild curiosity. 

“Hey, Morticia..umm..what are you doing here? We’re getting ready for an important meeting…”

“…and now that you’re here, it can start.” Stepping over to the Proprietor’s desk, I pulled out the captain’s chair and took a seat – then motioned her towards the visitor’s. 

An odd hollow sensation filled my middle as she drew closer, and I realized moonlight flattered her features far more than the fluorescents of the office did. Dark smudges that concealer failed to hide lay beneath her eyes, her suit looked at least two sizes too large for her frame, and her hair appeared positively dull.

Resting her hands on the backs of the twin chairs, Sarah met my gaze across the wide desk. “What are you talking about?”

Leaning forward, I laced my fingers together and rested them atop the blotter. “For starters? We’re not selling to the City Council.”

Sarah stood her ground, despite visibly paling at the pleasantly delivered news. “That’s not your decision to make.”

“Your right, it’s not.” Sarah’s congratulatory smile lasted only a second before I wiped it from her face. “Big Ben made the call last night, dissolved the Board this morning, and rejected the City’s offer about a half-hour ago.”

Licking her lips, Sarah tried hard to contain her reaction to the unraveling of her and Josie’s designs on Nevermore. After giving her a few more heartbeats to process the news, I gestured towards the visitor’s chair again. “Why don’t you sit down, Sarah.”

Accepting my invitation, she perched on the edge of the seat and started absently plucking invisible bits of fluff off her pants. “When did Big Ben get back?…”

My Silver City Operative, Tavi will be chuffed when I tell her her efforts in papering Silver City with three-by-five cards worked. Once Big Ben finally spotted one, on a Swap-or-Sale cork-board in out of the way bait shop, he realized they were everywhere. Then for reasons I’m still not entirely clear on, due to the late hour and some excellent rum, rather than calling the listed number Big Ben caught a red-eye home.

Not that Sarah needs those details. 

“…He made you Caretaker again, I assume…”  

A small smile flared to life on my lips at hearing my title and I united in a sentence again – then died when I looked Sarah in the eye. “Yes, I am. And as Nevermore’s Caretaker, I need you to tell me where you stashed the copies of the Conventions you stole from Ira, Lottie, Big Ben, and I.

Nostrils flaring, her leg started bouncing at speed. “I don’t know what you’re talking….”

Fed up with her, Josie, and their machinations, I stopped her mid-denial with an inflexible tone. “Just don’t. I know you held onto the letter making Little Ben Provisional Proprietor for months. I know how Josie bribed Nathaniel. I know how you both set Little Ben up. So please don’t waste time with denials.”

2.63 A Rum Do…

2.63 a Rum do

(Okay, so Big Ben and Bill both helped Nevermore – but I’m still tempted to tell them to take a long walk off a short pier!)

Puffed up and ruffled, a red-faced Little Ben shot up from his chair. Unfortunately, because he was sitting between Big Ben and me, he was hemmed in. Rotating in the postage-stamp-sized gap between our knees, Little Ben turned towards the grate and chucked a hunk of wood into the fire – sending sparks and ash up the chimney and onto the hearth. After stomping the smoldering embers out, he rounded on me. 

“I’m not a sucker.”

“I agree, you’re not.” Watching him pick up his rum and slug it all in one swallow, I regretted prompting him to refill it. “However, Sarah used her years of experience and her position of trust to manipulate you. While Josie used her web of friends and her job at Western Mutual to shepherd you into the impossible choice we now have to make.”

Rubbing a hand across his face, Little Ben set his empty glass on the mantle and segued slightly off-topic. “Mr. Ikeda didn’t change his mind?”

Sighing, I shook my head. “No….” Before I could elaborate or broach the subject of sacrificing Sunny Valley Farm, thus piling worse news on top of bad, the low report of a cork being removed from a bottle broke into our strained conversation. Reminding us of the third person sitting in the half-moon before the fire.

“I’m assuming you two are talking about the loan call?” Pausing for a second, to glance between us, Big Ben returned to tilting the bottle over his glass at our nods. “Bill rescinded it this afternoon.”

Sinking unceremoniously onto the hearth, Little Ben’s eyes were more than a little moist at the news. “I..I..I…thank…” The rest of Little Ben’s sputtering remarks were drowned as the ire I banked earlier boiled over – again.

“What the fork man, were you waiting for the perfect dramatic moment to tell us?” Skewering Big Ben, who looked neither sheepish nor apologetic, to his chair with my patented schoolmarm look. (Which unfortunately isn’t very potent since I’ve never stepped foot in a classroom to teach. Though it has been known to stop rambunctious toddlers in their tracks.) 

I finished off my brief tirade strong…kinda.

“Phhhffwwiff….Bill!” 

Thru narrow eyes, I thought I detected a small smile decorating Big Ben’s face, but the rim of his rum glass obscured too much of his mouth to be sure, and by the time he lowered it again there wasn’t a trace of amusement to be found on his countenance. So I let it slide. (Plus, vacillating between so many emotions over such a short time, the rum and lack of sleep, was wearing me out.)

“Bill Ikeda and I’ve known each other for years, he called me right after you left with the news.”

“He knew before I left his house Nevermore was safe?”

At my not so quiet grumbling, Big Ben did crack a smile. “How carefully did you read those deeds and leases from my safe?” 

Starting to seething a bit, I shrugged. “Mr. John Dupree had gone home by the time Beatrice and Ira figured out what they were looking at, so we did the best we could….” 

“Bill couldn’t speak to you about Western Mutual’s lease because your name isn’t on it. He did try to give you a hint…” Reading Little Ben’s apologetic look, he shot my way correctly (he’d pushed me into going Mr. Ikeda’s alone, afraid he’d mess up the meeting), Big Ben continued. “…It wouldn’t have mattered if you’d gone with her Junior. The leases you found aren’t part of Nevermore’s assets. They’re mine alone.”  

Understanding finally dawning, my churning downgraded to a simmer. “…And Mr. Ikeda couldn’t tell me he rescinded the loan call because my name wasn’t on the papers. But why did he do it? Not that I’m complaining mind you…And, better question, how the fork did he call you? All I’ve been getting, for months now, is that stupid out of service recording.” 

“He has faith in Nevermore, he used his phone, and I replace my cell this morning. Oh, and he wanted me to remind you, you forgot your cake carrier at his house….But back to the topic at hand…” Blinking at Big Ben, I tried to follow the conversational u-turn, at my wide-eyed frown, he gave me a hint. “…The con?”

“Oh, yeah, that.” Holding out my glass for another splash of rum, I tried to refocus (fully aware the alcohol wouldn’t help – but needing a moment). “I’m sorry, Ben, parts of this are going to sound harsh…”

Rolling his shoulders, Little Ben gave me an unhappy smile. “Don’t worry about it, just pretend I’m a fly on the wall.”

Cracking my neck, I started with clearing up a curious element before plunging directly into the heart of the racket run on him. “Ben, did you know the Provisional Proprietor isn’t allowed to sit on the Board of Managers?”

Shrugging, Little Ben dropped his hands helplessly onto his knees. “No, but Nathaniel never said anything about it, so I figured it was fine.” 

Leaning forward, Big Ben, tilted his head. “Why didn’t you consult the Conventions? Like I asked you to…”

“I tried, but I couldn’t figure out where your copy was.” Holding up my hand, I forestalled the rhubarb brewing between the two. “And that was their first move, creating a vacuum of knowledge among the members of the Board.”

“What was the second?”

“Bribery.” 

It took longer than I liked, but I finally figured out their game.

The whole con rested on Sarah’s ability to control the Board of Managers, which meant they needed a guaranteed majority, so their first order of business was refashioning it to suit their purposes. Josie’s talent for spotting avarice in others didn’t fail her in this quest, and neither did Nathaniel. By arranging for Nathaniel’s wife to receive that prestigious grant, Josie bought Nathaniel’s vote. They also purchased his silence, which allowed them to install you as a part of the Board and divide me from Nevermore. 

Then Sarah convinced you to give Ira a paper promotion to prevent him from grounding your ambitions – as they needed your dreams for Nevermore to flow forth unchecked. 

The for-sale-sign planted on the edge of the MacGregor’s farm just after Sarah gave you Big Ben’s letter proved serendipitous. By persuading you to pay cash, they – in one fell swoop – drained a fair chunk of Nevermore’s savings. Once you started working on the new Sunny Valley Farm expansion, I’m assuming Sarah steered you towards renovating Nevermore proper. Already in for a penny, you applied for the loan. 

Unfortunately, because you’re a big picture person and trusted Sarah – you didn’t see her coaxing you into overextending Nevermore and into conflict with the Naturalists and the Historical Society.

This is where Josie began piling on the pressure. 

First, she used, asked, bribed members inside the Rye’s Rose Club and the University’s Herbarium & Botanical Gardens to condemn your plans to rip out the woodlands. Then she cajoled, blackmailed, sweet-talked members of KARB and ‘Rise and Shine Rye’ to report the story – and due to their constant coverage, events started to snowball. 

Once the protests reached critical mass – Josie brought the crisis to a crescendo by using her position at Western Regional to call the loan immediately due. Whereupon Josie’s father Lucas, Chief Councilman of Rye, swooped in with a proposal, and because Sarah controls the Board, the sale to the city was a sure thing.

I’ve no clue what Sarah gets from all of this, but Josie’s motives are clear, it shows Lucas her political chops by doing to one thing he’s never managed – carve up Nevermore. 

Feeling weary, I watched Big Ben nod in understanding, and a ruddy flush creep-up Little Ben’s neck and across his face. “Like I said, there’s a lot I still don’t know, but I’m fairly certain these are the hits.”

With a sly light in his eye, Big Ben leaned towards me. “Okay, so what do you want to do about it?”

2.61 …Going Nowhere…

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Resting an elbow against the driver side door, I absently twisted a lock of hair around my finger, pointedly ignoring the phone that accidentally on purpose now rested underneath my pack on the passenger’s seat. The five missed calls from Little Ben, failed video chat with Leo, and the single text from Beatrice lurking next to me could go unacknowledged for a few minutes more. 

We knew approaching him was a long shot, but not a single one of us ever imagined a scenario where Mr. Ikeda refused to hear me out. For fork’s sake, Leo and I managed not only to get inside the sit-in last night (which was no mean feat in and of itself), we negotiated an end to it. Both the Naturalists and the Historical Society signed new leases, promised to get the picketers from their sister organizations to go home this afternoon, and issued a favorable press release. 

I mean…it took the six of us over fourteen hours to accomplish this coup, but we did, and Mr. Ikeda didn’t want to hear it? I…I…I managed to stammer out a ‘thank-you for your time’ thru a plastered on plastic smile before fleeing the scene for the comforting confines of the Princess sitting on the curb outside his house…

…I just couldn’t bring myself to start her up. Because there isn’t enough time to fashion a door number four before tomorrow morning’s deadline…

Going to the bank branch is a non-starter. If their CFO won’t listen there’s little chance they will……We are not selling to the Rye City Council, even if our refusal means cutting off our noses despite our faces. Watching the workmen wrench all the headstones from the ground and build a ballpark over the old bones…I can’t even….The Residents…….Maybe we can get an extension to keep Nevermore off the butcher’s block? 

It would give Little Ben, and I time to get a better handle on the contents of his father’s safe. I’m sure not every piece of property we discovered last night is rented out at the moment. Perhaps we could make enough money from selling one or two of those lots to make up the shortfall? Or, for that matter, we could satisfy the bank with Sunny Valley Farm – then we wouldn’t need to negotiate uncharted waters of these heretofore unknown Nevermorian assets. The majority of Little Ben’s plans got sent to the scrap heap yesterday, without even a whimper from him, what’s one more? 

Leaning my head against the rest, feeling rotten at the thought, I cast about for another option…. Unfortunately, the baying of the rowdy three cut my brown study short. 

Unable to bear the thought of being invited on a walk with Mr. Ikeda and his horde of hounds (or alternatively being ignored by all of them), I finally slotted the key into the Princess’s ignition. Pulling away from the curb, I drove down the street without any definite destination in mind. 

I continued driving to Nowhere (man what a great name for a bookshop) until the winter sun started sinking in the sky. In the murkiness of twilight, sitting at a stoplight, I finally realized the Princess’s tires had, in a meandering serpentine kind of way, been steadily aiming me at Nevermore rather than Nowhere. Understanding that putting off bad news wasn’t actually helping anyone – I took the shortest route to the main gates.

Creeping past Little Ben’s cottage, annoyance at the man begun to balloon when the dark windowpanes failed to show the barest flicker of an incandescent lightbulb. He’d promised, on a stack of bibles (though only figuratively), last night/this morning to stay put until I swung by to tell him how the meeting went. 

(The fact that said meeting occurred several hours in the past and I’d willfully ignored my phone since – didn’t hinder my growing ire a whit.) 

Hitting the brakes, I leaned sideways and hunted for my cell. Finally freeing it, one glance at the glowing screen lanced the bubble of irritation inside me. I’d missed no less than twenty-two texts and thirteen calls from Little Ben over the last couple of hours. Mentally kicking myself for my thoughtlessness, I opened my messages. Scrolling past the first few variants on ‘how did it go,’ I glommed onto the next relevant note; ‘Guessing it didn’t go great Heading to Pop’s to look at more papers.’ 

Figuring I’d see him soon enough, I left the rest of his communiques unread/unplayed.

Wending my way thru Nevermore to Big Ben’s house, I practiced my apology to Little Ben for going AWOL. Then tried to find the words to tell him we’ll probably need to forfeit Sunny Valley Farm.

Rounding the last bend, it didn’t take the deductive powers of Nancy Drew to figure out Little Ben was still inside the house. Even if his orange hybrid hadn’t been in the drive, and it was, every window from the attic to the cellar was streaked with light. Pulling the Princess in behind Little Ben’s car, I grabbed my pack off the passenger seat and jogged to the front door where, unlike earlier today, my knocks went entirely unheeded. 

Unwilling to cool my heels on the front porch, I tried the knob – which turned in my hand. Letting myself in, I stood at the base of the stairs in the foyer and did my best impression of Aunt Pearl calling my cousins and I (as kids) to supper from the front porch of our house.

“Ben?! It’s Morticia, where are you?”

“…Back. Here!…” 

The muffled voice, coming from somewhere in the rear of the house, set my feet in motion. It also, and unsurprisingly, grew louder as I drew closer to its source…it also grew deeper? Pausing, I listened to a familiar cadence creep down the hall…a distinctive baritone I hadn’t heard in nearly two years was clearly telling someone off…..Using the ticked-off bellowing as a beacon, I took off in a headlong run down the hall. Ignoring the pricking of my toes, my heart’s not so subtle attempt to beat itself free of its cage and the fact my breath sounded akin to a malfunctioning whistle on a boiling tea kettle – I galloped forward like Hades himself was on my heels. Hurtling into the room seconds later, arms akimbo with helter-skelter hair, I could only blink at its occupants.

The ironed haired gentleman, standing with his back to the flaming fireplace, broke off from bawling out his son. Chuckling at my wild-eyed entrance, he held his arms wide and gave me a wonderfully warm smile.

“Hey, Kiddo, I’m glad to see you….”

Bent at the waist, my lungs rapidly re-oxygenating my blood thru swift, shallow gulps of air, Big Ben’s words buzzed like so many bees in my ears……head…….chest……until their buzzing finally shook loose a few choice ones of my own….

“WHERE THE FORK HAVE YOU BEEN YOU INCONSIDERATE ASH-HOLE!”

2.53 What’s the Worst That Can Happen?

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(Now, I’ve never been to California and seen the Redwood Forest – but this is what my imagination pulls up when I think of them…)

Spotting a flash of light off in the distance, I shrunk into the deepest shadow shrouding the corner between the South and West gates of The Crossroads. Straining my ears, I heard the tell-tale sound of tires striking a speed bump as the automobile rolled closer. Channeling my inner redwood, endeavoring to match the stillness of those massive trunks, I watched the car carrying Nevermorian security cruise unhurriedly past my hiding spot. Admittedly there’s a substantial expanse of grass between myself and the cruiser – but even a locked door – draws the critical eye of a good guard. 

It wasn’t until the red glow of the taillights finally faded to small specks that I let my mind drift off of its tremendously tall loci and exhaled gustily. Detaching myself from the gloom, I jogged in place for a minute to warm up. (By way of payment, the walls responsible for casting the concealing shadows, sucked the warmth from the marrow of my bones.) No longer as stiff or chilly, I pulled up my sleeve and stared at two glowing green hands. 

Fork.

Thirty-four minutes had already slipped by since I scampered out my front door. 

Dear gods above and below, please let Leo, Robbie, and Beatrice have found something in their research that immediately arrested their attention. Thus allowing my pretext, of heading down to the Map Room to fetch my old school yearbooks, to stay intact. Because I really don’t want to own my overriding reason for following Ira to Nevermore.

On the upside, I’ve landed on a plausible and truthful rationale for keeping tabs on Ira – should anyone realize I’ve scarpered. I’ll cite my genuine anxiety about Ira’s safety. Since he needs to waltz past the majority of people cahooting together to retrieve the potential evidence of Sarah’s duplicity. (Thus, my tail makes sense.)

At no point, if an explanation is required, will I concede my genuine motivation. Which essentially boils down to Ira’s parting shot – “I’m going to Nevermore, what could possibly happen?” 

Seriously? Would you care for the answer in alphabetical or chronological order.

In an attempt to make him appear less tempting to the Fates, I enlisted the aid of someone who’s aces at tiptoeing around Nevermore undetected. As I couldn’t just let Ira stroll thru automatic doors of Nevermore’s main building (mosey his way back to the security hub, copy several days worth of security video & logs, then retrace his steps) all by himself.

Hence my pell-mell run down the back garden path, over several neighboring lawns, and along the sidewalks to the closest corner of Nevermore. Pleading to the universe during the entire – heart-rending, lung-busting, sneaker-slapping – run for Joseph to be hanging about The Crossroads tonight. 

Someone must’ve heard me because no sooner had I tripped onto the grounds – Joseph was at my side. Doubled over and panting, I managed to vocalize Ira, main building, and keep safe. 

He needed no other information.

Raising my cuff, I glanced at the luminous hands on my watch again and found only two minutes had ticked by. 

Waiting is the worst.

“He’s safely out of Nevermore.”

Leaping six inches in the air at the wildly unexpected sound of Joseph’s voice next to my ear, I narrowly suppressed the surprised scream my throat yearned to expel. “Jiminy Christmas, you should wear a bell….Thank you for looking after him.”

A smile I couldn’t see, due to the lack of light, colored his voice. “You are welcome. Though he needed very little help from me.”

“Thank the gods.” Shoulders sagging, my mind spontaneously called up the image of the redwood again. Only this time, my feet were its roots, and I watched my anxiety flow thru them and saturate the ground beneath my sneakers. 

(It didn’t seem to matter much to my mind that this wasn’t how roots worked.)

Head tilted, I saw concern in Joseph’s eyes as a match flared to life, lighting the cigarette stationed between his lips. “Why the panic? Ira didn’t go anyplace he didn’t rightfully have access too.”

Transfixed for a moment by the red coal, which glowed a hair brighter as he inhaled, it took a moment to recall my reasonable and honest excuse. “He might’ve been caught in the midst of downloading some compromising information…” 

“Indeed.” The amused tinge of his voice spoken volumes.

Scuffing the toe of my sneaker on the ground, I gave in. “Alright, Ira tempted the Weird Sisters right before he left the apartment, and I couldn’t take a chance of something or someone happening to him.”

Tilting his head, he took another drag of the cigarette. “You worried he might come to harm?”

Snorting without humor, I tipped my head back and stared at the twinkling stars for a second, forming my reply. “Maybe? Worst case scenario…”

“Why take the risk?”

“Proof, he and the others needed a hair more to fully believe Sarah’s guilt.” Straightening my shoulders, I dove straight into the niggling set of doubts that’d been pestering me. “You remember the incorrect dates Sarah gave me for the arrival and burial of Tiffany Grindle’s remains? She was the only one who knew there was a chance I was going to break into the building and/or creep about Nevermore…”

“…and if she set a trap, you’d know for certain where her loyalties lie.” 

Holding the half-finished smoke towards me, I shook my head at the unspoken offer (Joseph has far superior night vision) and answered his other question. “Let’s just say her explanation for the mix-up no longer satisfies.”

He paused, holding in the lungful of cigarette for a moment before expelling it. “These fabricated dates of Sarah’s started the night after you subdued the Woman In White, correct?”

“And the three following…” My voice trailing off as the implications of his answer hit me – extinguishing the small sliver of hope I’d unconsciously held onto in a dark secret part of my heart.

I watched his still smoldering smoke drop to the ground and disappear beneath the heel of his shoe. “Security guards were stationed all over Nevermore and inside Sarah’s Domain & Depository for the seven nights following our…adventure.” 

Rocking back, I blinked quickly up at the moon, trying to breathe around the lump in my throat. Should’ve taken a puff of his cigarette, could’ve blamed the salty liquid leaking from my eyes on smoke irritation. 

2.47 Happanstance or Design?

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One of the side benefits of visiting Samuel? Perusing the shelves Filbert’s Market for inspiration. Unfortunately, since I still had several hours left on my meter for today, I could only shop from the middle aisles. Even with this geographical limitation, my muse didn’t fail me, as the low sodium soy sauce featured on the aisle three end-cap provided the inspiration I was looking for. 

It had been an absolute age since I’d made garlic chicken wings. 

So after grabbing a bottle of soy, I snagged a bag of brown sugar, gochujang, a bulb of garlic, and the most massive cup of coffee the deli had to offer. I took my culinary cover for visiting Filbert’s to the front and stood in another line until my favorite checker (Bev don’t call me Beverly) handed me a receipt.

After depositing the shelf-stable ingredients in the Princess’s trunk and the coffee in the cupholder, I tootled towards the Diner On The Corner. In short order, I was pulling the Princess against the curb, just down the block from the restaurant, to wait for Mr. Fernandez’s call.

Settling in, I took a moment to take in the beauty of the bare-branched trees, then dove into my discordant to-do list. Pulling the reporter’s notebook (Uncle had given me from his personal stationery stash last night to help sort out my priorities) and the atypical copy of the Conventions out from under the driver’s seat, I propped the former against the latter and went to work.

Checking Samuel’s name off the list of Errants, I need to alert about a possible newcomer and/or threat (since it’s not always clear which category they fall under until Joseph & I vet them), felt nice. Adding an asterisk next to Eliza’s name, felt less so. She’d hit the panic button once when a flock of sparrow’s dust bath divots ‘gouged’ the ground near her Origin Point. So what stopped her from using the Relay when an Errant of indeterminate intentions approached? On the upside, when I visit Eliza, I can exchange notes with Abraham and keep up my end of our bargain.

Moving on to easier, though no less relevant notes, I jotted down a few thoughts on sides to accompany soy-glazed garlic wings. Then sketched out a relatively goof-proof plan to sneak a copy of My Neighbor Totoro into Filbert’s break-room tv for Samuel. About the time I was vacillating over the line item about me flying to New Mexico myself to find Big Ben, a flock of birds erupted from behind my seat.

Not literally, thank the gods above and below. 

Me (pressing the button of my handsfree headset hooked over my ear): “Hop 2863, do you need me to pull around the front for you, Mr. Fernandez?” 

Hesitant Voice: “Hey Morticia, it’s Sarah.”

That’ll teach me for not assigning individual ringtones to people, one more thing to add to the to-do list.

Me: “Oh, hey, Sarah. Sorry, I was expecting a call from a FLYT fare. What’s up?”

Sarah: “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were still working.”

Me (letting out a little laugh): “Pulling extra hours. The nieces and nephews handed out their Christmas lists last week, and I’m going to buy the most obnoxious toy – my cousins will kill me for getting – off each one.”

Sarah (returning my laugh): “You know payback’s a bench, right?”

Me (grin fading): “Yeah, well, I like being cool Auntie Morticia.” 

Sarah: “Wait, I thought you always got them books.”

Me (tapping my fingers on the gilt-edged tome sitting in my lap): “Those too. That’s why I’m working extra hours until Yule.”

Sarah (clearing her throat): “Speaking of which…”

Me (closing my eyes): “Hey Sarah, I know you didn’t call to talk about the niblings, but my FLYT ap just popped, and I need to pick up my fare. Can you shoot me a text? Or can I call you after my shift? I get off at nine…”

Sarah (brightly): “I’ll text you. Stay safe in the salt mines!”

Me (forcing cheer into my words): “Back at you.”

Pressing the button on my headset, I disconnected, roughly unhooked the earpiece, and threw it onto my dash. 

Okay, I lied. 

Mr. Fernandez won’t finish for at least another twenty minutes, but I couldn’t take talking to Sarah right now……Because I’d love nothing more than to take Robbie’s advice.

Closing my eyes, I imagined clearing the air over the Brace Affair with Sarah over bowls of ramen (one of her favorites). I’d listen to her side and she mine. I’d tell her I understood the difficulty of divided loyalties and the tightrope one walked in managing them. We’d have a laugh, slurp our soup, and put it behind us.

Unfortunately, my newly minted sense of suspicion supplanted this pie-in-the-sky vision with the memory of that first forking phone call. 

Opening my eyes, I stared at the rosy oval scars on the heels of my hands, that forking phone call. It fashioned and fit a lens of mistrust over my mind’s eye, modifying the meaning of every word, gesture, and deed stored in my memory of her.

Not the least of which makes me wonder if Little Ben really did rifle thru Sarah’s desk and discombobulate her paperwork. The circumstance she claimed caused her to give me the wrong date for the Woman In White’s arrival in Nevermore. (Leading me to confront a homicidal Errant entirely underprepared.) Who exactly would’ve been waiting for me if I’d shown up on the date she gave me?

Then there’s the random happenstance of her being on hand the very last time I laid either eyes or hands on my copy of the Conventions. In point of fact, she helped box up the remaining portion of my library that day – which included the aforementioned policy manual.

Coincidence or pattern?

2.46 Idle Hands

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(Filbert’s original sign from way back in the day.)

Stepping to the front of the line, ignoring the spark singing across my toes, I craned my neck, trying to sneak a peak around the stacked blue flats filled with hotdog & hamburger buns, wheat & white loaves, and crinkly crumpet packets. Unfortunately, the fresh from the oven baked goods completely covered the faded drawing a bored hand had placed on the exposed beam, seven inched above the floor, in the backroom of Filbert’s Market across from the restrooms.

I’d been ten when an absentminded stock clerk left a marks-a-lot marker on top of an open case of peanut butter whilst Aunt Pearl stood in line to ‘spend a penny.’ Due to the unexpected urgency of her call of nature, Aunt Pearl failed to notice me swiping the pen as I passed the stack of case packs.

Sitting on the chipped cement floor in the narrow space betwixt some boxes and the wooden beam, waiting for Aunt Pearl to reopen the restroom door, I doodled a bulbous nosed man looking over a wall then wrote ‘Killroy was here!’ above it. My grandfather introduced the piece of wartime graffiti to me the weekend before on his visit, and it sparked my imagination. (The drawing, not the war in which my grandfather fought. I didn’t learn until much later about his time in France.) Envisioning the real Killroy’s broad smile in my mind’s eye, should he happen to spot my effort in keeping his chain-letter-cartoon alive, I failed to register the warning my prickly toes tried to give me.

An Errant, who was none too pleased with my unsanctioned scribbling, towered over me.

He delivered a four-letter fortified dressing down on the disrespect I displayed towards him, the workers, and the owners when I chose to deface the store’s two-by-four. After concluding his comprehensive diatribe on my overall lack of regard for others, he turned to storm off – only to stop cold at my quiet apology.

“Hello, Troublemaker.” 

I’m fairly certain the only way Samuel Washington will ever fully forgive me for the drawing is to paint over it. However, since it was a job of work just reconsecrating his Origin Point, I’m not going to try and erase the decades-old doodle. No matter how much it bugs him. (Plus, at this point, I think he might actually miss it if it was gone.) 

“At least your drawing makes sense. The new shop-girls keep drawing that cat/rabbit thing.” 

Following his eyes, I glanced over at the employee bulletin board next to me. There amongst the official minimum wage posters, recall notices, and one chinchilla rehoming advert was a series of Totoro illustrations of varying quality. Wordlessly I slipped my phone out of my pocket, tipped it towards Samuel, so he could see the screen and pulled up the synopsis of the classic animated movie.

“Oh, it’s from a picture show…. Still would be nice to know if this Totoro is a rabbit or a cat.” 

Shrugging my shoulders slightly in response, I took an extra second to flip over to my FLYT ap to make sure Mr. Fernandez hadn’t finished early (he hadn’t). Canting my head towards the restroom door, who’s rattling lock signaled its’ impending opening, I waited for the produce clerk to hustle past before stepping into the vacant room. Samuel, who’s never been thrilled at our meeting arrangement (but hasn’t thought of a better way for us to speak in private), popped reluctantly in behind me. 

Starting the stopwatch on my phone, since there’s only so long you can spend in a semi-public restroom without arousing unwelcome attention, I got immediately down to business. “Has a man in a green suit come around to visit or shown interest in your genesis point?”

My question got Samual’s attention. “No, no one I don’t know has stopped by. Is there a threat?”

“I don’t know. Abraham found this unknown Errant inspecting Eliza’s spot and chased him off. I wanted to make sure you knew, in case he shows up here.” 

Samual let loose a delightful string of colorful four-letter words. 

Finally, winding up his litany of profanity (a habit of his which, as a kid, I found highly educational as he’s got some real zingers in his arsenal), he turned back towards me his face taunt. “Is there any way I can help?”

“Keep an eye out, use the Relay to get word to me if you see him or find any hint he’s been here. I’ll come right away.”

Raking his hand across his close-cropped hair, he gave a short bark of laughter that held many things, joy not being amongst them. “You think the Relay will help me if this Errant has anything but benevolent intentions? I haven’t been able to Flare for decades. Hell, you can’t even feel my genesis point unless you’re practically standing on it.”

There’s a thought.

Looking down at the ever-increasing number on the stopwatch, I sighed and shoved aside a whole new set of questions. “I know. But whoever this guy is, he ran when Abraham Flared, so perhaps his Vita is limited as well? The Relay might warn him off. It’s early days yet. Hopefully, I will know more soon.”

Shoulders slumping, threadbare bitterness supplanted his anger. “I doubt this Errant will locate me, riveted in place as I am, but I’ll let you know if he swings by.” 

Knowing any effort to cheer him would only renew his anger. I moved on as the stopwatch told me our time had nearly run out. 

“Is there anything new here I should know about?”

Samuel shook his head. “No, nothing that would cause me any problems. Though Donald Knouser, in seafood, stole a bag of frozen ahi tuna poke on Monday.”

After writing the information on my to-do list, I walked over, flushed the toilet, and then waited for a few beats before turning on the tap. “I’ll let the manager know. Anything else?”

“No.”

Turning off the tap, I pulled a paper towel out of the dispenser, tossed it away, and turned off my stopwatch just as it hit three minutes. “I swing by on Saturday as usual. Please be careful, Samuel.”

Giving me a curt nod Samuel left. Letting loose a heavy sigh, I unlocked the lock and stepped across the threshold towards the oversized stockroom doors. 

2.40 Parlor Game No. 2 – Snapdragon

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(What the snap dragon looked like aflame – though taking a pic at night is difficult….)

Stopping just shy of requiring a blood oath, Abraham finally agreed not to seek out our unknown curious Errant on his own, so long as I promised to keep him in the loop. 

Parting ways, my mind raced to fold in this new wrinkle.… My hunt for Big Ben is on autopilot at the moment unless I suck it up and ask Uncle for help….I’m knocking out my visit to Nevermore tonight, though Wood doesn’t know it yet. I’m unsealing Ira’s envelope after forty winks….So visiting the Genesis Points of Rye’s Errants seems feasible….I can fit a few drop-bys during my FLYT shifts if I’m careful…

Wood: “Morticia, you’ll never guess who I found wandering by…” 

Me (wide-eyed): “Sarah!” 

Wood: “Ah, you guessed.”

Me (laughing): “She’s sitting at the table, you dolt.”

Sarah (staring down at the table): “Hey Phoebe. Wood said you guys were out here moon bathing.”

Me (stepping next to a seated Wood): “Yup, you should join us!”

Sarah: “Isn’t the Lavender Lady’s backyard more convenient?”

Sarah’s curtly delivered question arrested my forward momentum. Leaving my knee leaning against the table edge and my sneaker planted on the seat next to Wood. Sarah, who was quickly denuding the plaid blanket of its pills, misses the quick shrug Wood gave me.  

Me (slowly): “It is. However, it also has Ms. Hettie, who’s proven to have a low threshold for late-night frivolity.”

Sarah (pressing): “But why here? Why Remembrance Park?”

Me (trying to fathom her driving tone): “Have you ever heard of the Grey Man?”

Sarah (nodding): “Yes…”

Me: “Well, apparently he’s been spotted skulking around here several times over the years. Which makes sense since he used to live two streets over. Anyways, I thought I’d break in the spirit board Laney stitched for me and try contacting Wynter in a place he’s known to semi-frequent.”

Sarah (pushing): “Then why were you hanging out in the gazebo?”

Wood (unruffled): “Morticia was giving me some privacy while I face-timed Laney.”

Sarah (looking up finally): “Oh. So you guys really are just Moon Bathing?”

Words along the lines of – ‘What do you think we were doing?’ – died in my throat in response to a surreptitious squeeze of my sneaker. Snapping my mouth firmly closed, Wood picked up the conversational baton and did what he does best – putting people at ease.

Letting their voices buzz in my ears like so many bees, I took a good long look at Sarah. Dark rings hung low under her eyes, her blouse appeared more voluminous than usual, and her nails were bitten nearly to the quick. 

She looked terrible. 

Continuing to woolgather on how to get Sarah to eat a good meal, my eyes wandered restlessly onto the canvas tote sitting next to her. Slumped open, the distinct letterhead of Nevermore at the top of a wad of documents caught my eye. Followed by a couple of thick purple rebranding binders I’d last spied in Little Ben’s office.

Sarah, noticing the direction of my gaze, slipped the bag under the table.

Wood (calling my attention back to the table): “Morticia, Laney is dying to try out the spirit board. But has an early meeting, so she asked if we could postpone the reading until she got home. I told her you’d be okay with it.”

Me (laughing): “I don’t know, can you handle both of us having that much fun?”

Wood (grinning): “I’ll start cross-training immediately.”

Me (pointing at the hamper): “Sarah why don’t you make a plate while I set up our other entertainment, we’ve still got plenty of everything.”

Sarah, who’d downshifted from denuding the blanket to merely tracing the pattern with her index finger, hesitated just long enough in following my suggestion that Wood took the reins. Leaving him to it, I moved to the other end of the table and begun prepping my parlor game provisions.

Wood (offhanded): “Little Ben must be losing his marbles at KARB’s coverage of the protesters inside Nevermore.”

Sarah (after swallowing a massive bite of meatloaf sandwich): “You’ve no idea. Today, after His Highness heard KARB’s noon news break, he cussed out the radio for twenty minutes then stomped around for the rest of the day.”

Wood (dishing up a small bowl of chili): “Why?”

Sarah (pausing between bites): “Rye’s Garden Club and the University’s Botanical department publicly condemned his proposed expansion. I’m not looking forward to working with him after his meeting with the Aarti and Talia.”

Me (debating with myself while sprinkling raisins into the shallow dish): “Leave a steamed milk on his desk next to a jelly doughnut, that usually calms him down. Cherry’s is his favorite, but raspberry works as well. Both need to come from The Alter.”

Sarah (meeting my gaze for the first time): “Thanks, I’ll try that…”

Me (lighting a wooden match and carefully setting the apple brandy aflame): “Now have either of you ever played snapdragon?”

Between the brilliant blue flames leaping from the dish, the heart-pounding thrill of dipping our fingers into the blaze, and eating raisins still alight, Sarah’s unease burned away. Allowing the three of us to laugh easily in the pale moonlight. 

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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