Tag Archives: penny dreadful

2.44 Oh Baloney…

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Rubbing my face, my fingers hardly felt the divots the wire spiral of my notebook dug into my face. Realizing my eyes were no longer open, and hadn’t been so for some time, I eased my eyelids apart. They found Uncle, still sitting at his desk, grinding thru the pile of primary source materials Ira included in his envelope.

Wow, there’s two words my mind hadn’t united in years, primary and source. 

I could practically taste the baloney and mustard sandwiches we used to snack on whenever Uncle proofread and fact-checked my school reports. Other than a few extra lines on both our faces, not much in the office has changed since those days. 

Man, now I really want baloney and yellow mustard on white with a side of sweet pickles and potato chips.

Too bad, there’s absolutely no way I’m setting foot in Aunt Pearl’s kitchen until we finish. She nearly pitched a fit and fell in it upon realizing she was losing her fastest cupcake froster for a few hours. Only my solemn promise to wield a pastry bag on her behalf once we wound things up in here diverted her wrath. Though the timely arrival of my cousins, their spouses, and the niblings with an awe-inspiring supply of vanilla beans, butter, powdered sugar, and heavy-cream might have done more to accomplish that deed than my word.

I wonder if one of my cousins would be willing to fetch me sandwich fixing…

Cheered at the prospect of fulfilling my baloney flavored dreams, I picked up my phone and discovered two texts waiting. (I’d put my phone on silent to help Uncle stay in the zone.) 

Shoving my seasoned sausage craving aside for a second, I opened the message from my Silver City Operative Tavi. Not only did she enthusiastically agree to tackle the pithy list of places Big Ben mentioned in his correspondence with Ira. She also sent me a snapshot of her wearing her investigator’s outfit – greatcoat, fedora, wingtips, and all. After returning the wide grin of the woman in the picture, I flipped over to my FLYT ap and added extra credits to her ride account. Then arranged for her to receive a munificent quantity of thank-you-hanging-up-my-desperately-seeking-Big-Ben-signs-all-over-town tacos the next time she visited her favorite family-owned taqueria. (Which to the untrained eye might resemble a gift certificate.)

Switching back to my texts, I read the other pending message from Mrs. Lebondowsky. The Naturalist and Historical Society have enlisted the help of several regional environmental groups to help populate their picket lines at Nevermore’s entrances – freeing them up to start the sit-in. If tonight’s emergency vote goes the way Mrs. Lebondowsky thinks it will – she’ll let me know.

Staring sightlessly at my phone, pondering, my tummy let loose a deep rumble reminding me of the craving I’d yet to satisfy. Picking up my phone, I texted the cousin that ticked off the boxes of: (a) someone willing to swipe sandwich supplies, (b) who’s cake decorating skills are poor enough that Aunt Pearl wouldn’t immediately miss them, and (c) who is honing his professionally nosiness.

He replied with a thumbs-up in five-seconds flat.

Uncle, who was still zeroed in on the data, didn’t even look up when I set aside Joseph’s purported copy of the Conventions so I could heave myself off the couch. Pressing my ear against the door, I waited until the squeaky floorboard in the hall augmented the hurly-burly sounds bouncing down the corridor before easing it open for my cousin to dart thru. (Seems neither of us is keen on getting caught should Aunt Pearl investigate the familiar creak.)

Robbie, arms ladened with sandwich fixings, chips, and soda, gave me a wide grin.

Robbie: “Hey cuz! You’re timing is marvelous!”

Putting my finger against my lips, I tipped my head towards the side-table. Following my lead, he set down the sandwich components onto the narrow surface once I’d moved Uncle’s awards out of the splash zone. You never know when the mustard bottle might get feisty.

Me (starting to assemble the sandwiches): “Did I save you from dishpan hands?”

Robbie (matching my low tone): “Yeah, and the drama. Mom started ‘touching up’ the cookies Ruby frosted, and she’s fit to be tied.”

I wonder if Aunt Pearl’s really that invested in the success of the school district’s Carnival or if her confections are competing with someone else’s. 

I’d place good money on the latter.

Robbie (casting an eye towards the desk): “…So what are you guys doing in here? Mom never said.”

That didn’t take long. Glancing over at Uncle, who apparently wasn’t as tuned out to the room as I’d thought, as he was coming over to grab a sandwich. 

Uncle (reading my mind): “It’s up to you. Though I think he could help.”

Holding up a finger at Robbie, forestalling the bevy of probing queries his quivering countenance promised, I took a contemplative bite of the yen satisfying sandwich. (BTW – They’re just as scrumptious as I remembered.) 

Me (after taking a swig of soda to wash everything down): “I need your promise not to repeat a word of what’s said in this room to anyone.”

Robbie (lowering his unsullied sandwich): “You have it.”

Me (receiving a nod from Uncle): “Remember the time Uncle and Aunt Pearl rescued Wood, Laney, Beatrice, and I up from Nevermore in the middle of the night?”

Robbie (laughing): “The night Wood dressed you guys like the cast from Pirates of Penzance? What about it?”

Me (exchanging looks with Uncle): “Well, you see, there was more to that night than us settling a bet….”

2.43.b Carnivals & Cakes

Rewind eight hours. 

Before, KARB aired Berlioz’s, Béatrice et Bénédict. Before, I baked several breakfast treats. Before, I ingested several gallons of coffee. 

I sat alone in the kitchen of the Lavender Lady, listening to Wood tootle off in the direction of the living-room couch, finishing off the last swig of my beer…….When my eyes slowly slid towards the corner of Ira’s envelope peeking out of my pack. 

Firming up my upper lip, I told myself the contents would be exactly the same tomorrow morning. 

Emphatically nodding my head, my mind made up, I happened to notice a ring of condensation the bottom of my beer bottle left on the table. Getting up, I grab a rag from the sink and wipe down the table, then the counters. Because if you’re going to do one, you may as well do the other. However, whilst taking care of the counters, I knocked over the stack of empty containers I’d packed the Moon Bathing nibbles in. Deciding I couldn’t leave dirty dishes for Beatrice to find in the morning, I unloaded, reloaded, and ran the dishwasher. Because that’s what good roommates do. Similarly, I couldn’t leave the stack of soiled blankets sitting on the kitchen chair, so I washed them as well.

Scanning the kitchen, cleanup complete, my eyes once again strayed towards the manila covered temptation……and caved. One quick peek, to give my subconscious something other than Toby to chew on, what could it hurt?

Famous. Last. Words. 

Fast forward eight hours and twenty-seven minutes.  

Past the anatomizing of Ira’s information down to the subatomic level. Past the flabbergasting discovery of double-dealings. Past my forty-five-minute catnap hunched over the table, on top of my spiral-bound notebook. (I’m lucky to only have a wire imprint on my face. I’d missed dozing on my uncapped hot pink highlighter by mere inches.) Past Wood and Beatrice looks of incredulity when I’d begged off from their afternoon plan to partake of barbecue and sniff old books in favor of completing a chore.

Stepping out of the Princess and onto the drive, I leaned my seat forward and pulled my hulking pack from the backseat. Trudging around the side of the house, I slowly climbed the back stairs and pushed open the door. 

Stunned by the spectacle hitting my retinas, it took me a moment to recall the last time I beheld such a sight. (I do believe it occurred the year Robbie’s school hosted the regional Spelling Bee finals and the PTA pounced on the opportunity to fund their after school programs.) Every surface, plus a few extras brought in especially, were covered in unfrosted cakes, cupcakes, cookies, the odd pie, a half dozen loaves of bread, and one sad-looking pan of sausage rolls. 

My early morning efforts paled in comparison.

Amid this unadulterated homage to flour, eggs, and butter stood Aunt Pearl operating my great-grandmother’s stand mixer. Next to her stood my niece Ruby. Who, for reasons outside my ken, was responding to my Aunt’s instructions with expressive meows.

Aunt Pearl (over her shoulder): “Jesse, if you forgot the whole vanilla beans again, you can turn right back around.”

Me: “It’s not Jesse Aunt Pearl.”

Ruby (at the sound of my voice, she started scrabbling off her stool): “Ppuurrrrr? Meow!!!”

Aunt Pearl: “Hello Dear! Give us a minute. We’re almost done.”

Drifting towards the two-foot square of open space at the kitchen table, where Uncle sat sipping his coffee and reading his stack of newspapers, I looked around for another seat. Deciding the chances of finding a chair free of thumbprint cookie trays slim to none, I dropped both my pack and backside onto the floor. 

Uncle (setting aside his paper): “So what brings you by? Besides the floorshow.”

Me (leaning against the cabinet, my legs stretched out in front of me): “Did Aunt Pearl lose a bet?”

Uncle (chuckling): “No, one of the vendors for the district’s Carnival pulled out at the last minute. So your Aunt’s helping bridge the gap. She roped the whole neighborhood, plus Jesse, Tad, Dylan, and Dwight, into helping.”

Heart sinking, I reconsidered asking Beatrice and Wood for help, then rejected the idea immediately. There’s no way I could ask without being an awful friend. Ira and Leo were similarly off-limits. Maybe Mrs. Schmit? I trust her….but do I trust her that far?

Uncle (forehead crinkling in concern): “Phoebe?”

Me (pulling my heavy pack towards me): “Sorry, I didn’t realize you guys were so busy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered you with this…”

Uncle (tilting his head): “With?”

Me (sighing): “I was hoping you could double-check my work.”

Uncle’s gaze sharpened. However, before either of us could say anything else, Ruby scampered onto my lap purring madly, and Aunt Pearl thunked a bowl of frosting at my Uncle’s elbow. 

Ruby (four inches from the end of my nose): “Auntie Morticia! Come see! Come See! Grandma’s saving the Carnival’s cakewalk! And she’s going to let me decorate the cookies! I get to use ALL the frosting I want!… What’s wrong with your face?”

Aunt Pearl (bustling over): “Ruby’s right, what’s wrong with your face? You look tired. Did you not sleep well? Do you want some coffee? Can you stay and frost some cupcakes?”

It didn’t take the intuition of Nancy Drew to figure out Aunt Pearl let Ruby sample some frosting, her blue-tinged teeth told the story. The dark tint to Aunt Pearl’s lips told a similar sugar-filled tale. As did the fact neither waited for or required a response to their series of rapid-fire questions.

Me (sliding Ruby off my lap): “No, Aunt Pearl. I’m fine. I should be going….”

Uncle (finishing my sentence): “…back to my office. Mind if I take the coffee pot back with us, Pearl?”

2.43.a Much Ado About Something

The loud thwack followed by a bellowed expletive pulled me away from watching the icing melt in delicious rivulets across the tops of my fresh from the oven cinnamon buns. Waiting for Wood to hobble in gave me time to consolidate the contents of Ira’s envelope, Beatrice’s laptop, and Joseph’s book. In their place, I laid out coffee and the aforementioned buns. 

Nothing like sugar, butter, and caffeine to help overcome trauma. Wood limped into the kitchen just as I was setting out the utensils, plates, and mugs.

Me: “Did the make-up case get you?”

Wood: “No, the carry-on.”

Apparently, Beatrice switched her plans and flew in late last night. Her presence was easily deduced upon our arrival back at the Lavender Lady due to the matching six-piece luggage set littering the hallway when we walked in.

Me: “Count yourself lucky it wasn’t the steamer trunk, the brass corners suck.”

Giving half-laugh Wood pointed at the pot and pan on the table for permission to dig in, giving him the nod, I put the cookie dough in the refrigerator. Tapping in time with KARB’s current selection, The Ghost Rags, I stuck the muffin tin in the oven, wound the timer then joined Wood at the table.

Pouring my umpteenth cup of coffee, I posed the question that had been troubling me for the last hour.

“Margret, from Much Ado About Nothing, do you think she was secretly in league with Borachio and Don John?”

Pausing, his cinnamon bun laden turner hanging in mid-air, Wood ran a critical eye over me. My besmirched apron prompted his gaze to shift past my shoulder onto the flour-coated stand mixer, the pan of shortbread next to it, and a dish filled sink sitting behind me. 

I’m also reasonably sure he didn’t miss, as I did in my quick tidying up, the dough encrusted spatula I’d left next to my haphazardly packed backpack. Or the fact I had the loopy imprint of a spiral-bound notebook wire across my left cheek and temple.

Wood (finally finishing dishing up his sticky breakfast bun): “Morticia, are these scratch-made or from a tube?”

Me (over the rim of my mug): “Scratch.”

Wood (waving his knife towards my new face decoration): “We didn’t roll in until after two, how much sleep did you get?”

Me (glossing over his question): “Enough. Now Margaret part and parcel in Don John’s scheme or not?”

In point of fact, I got a solid forty-five minutes while my cinnamon roll dough doubled in volume. But who’s counting? Other than Wood.

Wood (clearly unimpressed by my one-word response): “If I recall, everyone ended up forgiving her in the end…”

Catching the tail end of the answer, Beatrice, looking bright-eyed & bushy-tailed (pretty much the exact opposite of the last time I laid eyes on her), walked in. 

Beatrice (grabbing the seat next to Wood): “Forgive who? Me? I apologize for leaving my suitcases in the hall, bad habit. I didn’t get in until midnight, and I couldn’t face lugging them around anymore…”

Me: “No, biggie. Margaret from Much Ado, victim or villain?”

Wood (mumbling): “No biggie for you, my toes will never be the same.”

Beatrice straightened her curving lips at Wood’s grumblings, topping off Wood’s mug and mine before using the pot to pour her own.

Beatrice (seeing and visibly ignoring the red zigzag on my face): “hmmm…..It would add an extra shadow to the play if Margaret had designs on Claudio for herself…However, I think she was a victim of Don John’s scheming. Why?”

Me: “But why stay silent in the face of your friend’s disgrace? When Hero’s own father wishes for her death?”

Beatrice: “Would you want to announce at a wedding, to everyone and god, about your sexual role-playing the night before? Where you not only assumed your friend’s name but donned her clothes and used her room for the assignation? There’s an excellent chance Leonato would have cast Margaret out of his house on the spot, in complete disgrace.”

Me: “True, but the Friar proved himself more than able to temper Leonato’s fury.”

Beatrice: “With Benedict’s help. I’m not sure Margaret would have faired so well in Benedict’s opinion without Borachio’s confession in his hip pocket.”

Me: “I suppose. I’m just stuck on the fact the word of a confirmed knave cleared her, whereas her actions seem to condemn her.”

Wood (around a mouthful of sugar and spice): “Morticia, you’ve never given a flying fork about Margaret, let alone lost sleep over her, what’s really eating you?”

Ding!

Riding the pause with professional ease, Wood waited patiently for my reply while I scrabbled around, swapping the shortbread pan for the muffin tin in the oven. Fortunately, by the time I retook my seat, I’d formed a better answer than, ‘Nothing.’

Me (shrugging): “Just passing the time.”

Wood (clearly skeptical): “Right.”

Apparently, it wasn’t that much better, but it did possess the virtue of being the truth.

2.42.b Wonderland

Crouching back down next to the Toby, who was selflessly offering his tummy up for scritches, Wood tilted his head to continue talking to Joseph. “He’s a sweet little guy. How old is he?”

Joseph, clearly amused at Toby’s shameless behavior, stood next to Wood. “I’m not sure, Toby was full-grown when he adopted me.”

“I’ve two of my own, Bert and Ernie.”

“Do they follow you around? Toby’s my personal shadow.”

Stopping the hysterical giggle threatening to escape me by biting down on it. I watched two pivotal pieces of my life that I’d always presumed would remain poles apart make banal chitchat over another impossible thing.

If I find four more before breakfast, I’ll tie the White Queen’s record. 

The stray thought stole the breath from my lungs. 

Can you imagine seeing six impossible things before breakfast? My paradigms feel fractured at a mere two. 

Pulling up the cuff of my coat to expose my watch face, I nearly wept when it read half-past one. It’s a brand new day that makes my next meal breakfast. I don’t care if I’m still stuffed to the gills from our moon bathing nibbles, we’re hitting The Alter for coffee and danishes. 

This madness must end.

“………Morticia.”

Glancing blankly up at the sound of my name, I did my best impression of Dickens. “Huh?”

Wood, placing the back of his hand against my forehead for a second, caught me up to speed. “Joseph asked if I could watch Toby while he spoke to you in private for a minute. I said it’s fine with me if it’s fine with you.”

Giving him a reassuring smile, “Yeah, sorry, it’s okay. He’s the guy I came here to talk to tonight.”

Nodding, we both watched Joseph issue Toby his marching orders, “This will take a few minutes. Please stay here with Dourwood.” At Toby’s yip of agreement, Joseph turned to me, I shot Wood a quick smile, and then he and I wordlessly headed towards the back of the Manor and out of earshot. 

Sinking onto the top step, resting my elbows on my knees, I watched Wood and Toby dash amongst the rose beds having a grand old time together. 

Joseph has a dog. 

Clearly not the most spectacular gap in my knowledge about the man, but I found it unsettling all the same. 

“So Nevermore has four-legged Residents?”

“Not Residents, Resident. Toby’s unique in Nevermore though that might change with the pet cemetery annex.”

“Any other Residents I’ve not met yet?”

“A few.”

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw his poker face in place. “More than one but less than twenty?”

“Yes.”

Knowing that was the best I was going to get, I moved on. “HOW is Wood playing fetch with a Resident?”

“Just a trick, Toby learned.”

“What like rolling over?” 

Chuckling at my sarcasm. “Toby knows that one as well.”

“Can other Residents perform this ‘trick’?”

Joseph shook his head. “No, just Toby.”

“Okay, then how are you doing it?”

Joseph gave me a little shrug and a maddening sphinx-like smile.

Rotating my head slowly, stretching out the tight muscles in my neck, I vacillated between wanting to flick him in the forehead and cutting loose a mammoth-sized sigh. Sensing my perturbation, he swept both unhelpful impulses aside by slipping a thick leather-bound book onto my lap.

“A copy of the Conventions as requested.”

“Are you sure?” 

Joseph laughed at my disbelief. 

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“You realize it looks nothing like any other copy I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

“Nevertheless.”

Cracking the spine, I carefully leafed past the endpapers to the cursive filled first page. Sadly, the poor lighting on the porch and the slant of the handwriting made it difficult to decipher on the spot. 

I have a feeling this book could benefit from an index.

“Do you think it will help Nevermore?”

“No idea, but it stands to reason if both my and Ira’s copies went walkabout there’s something salient inside. Speaking of walkabouts, Orin’s Errant….” Letting the impossible issues drop, as I’d learned a clam has looser lips than Joseph, I filled him in on Abraham’s antics, intelligence, and our plans. 

His face didn’t turn grave until the protests came up. 

Of course, he knew of them, they’re literally on Nevermore’s doorstep. However, he’d been unaware of the extent of unrest Little Ben’s plans had churned up in Rye. “The silver lining in all this bad press and protests is they work in our favor. Not only are they pointing out what Nevermore would lose with the demolition and deforestation, but they will also cause delays.”

Staring up at the stars, he quietly asked, “Does everything rest on finding Big Ben?”

“Not everything…Okay, everything.” Stroking the leather book sitting in my lap. “I’ll find a Plan B.” 

“I know you will try Phoebe.” 

2.41 A Wind From the North

Version 2

Wood and I watched, from the Princess’s cozy confines, a patrol car cruise slowly past us. Fighting the instinct to hunker down, I sucked on my slightly scorched index finger while fastening my seatbelt with the other. Much to our mutual relief, the cruiser turned the corner, crawl by the park, then thankfully roll out sight. 

The appearance of the police at the site of our Moon Bathing soiree, after the Beagle and his Human, tootled past us on one last jaunt around the block, is probably pure coincidence. Undoubtedly the one-man watch missed the eerie flickering blue flames of the Snapdragon dish…

…that could possibly be seen from space due to an inadvertently heavy-handed pour from the bottle of apple brandy. (The fact we were laughing like an asylum of loons while popping bits of fire into our mouths – I’m sure escaped his notice as well.)

Pondering the question, should we count this as a close shave with the boys in blue, I turned towards the Princess’s passenger seat for a second opinion. Only to find an unsmiling Wood staring at the space up the street Sarah’s car had occupied up until a few minutes ago. 

Me (using a hankie to wipe the drool off my sore finger): “You think Sarah’s doing okay?”

Wood: “Can you drive past the park for me? Slowly?”

Me (incredulous and yet still turning the engine over): “You want me to follow the cop car?”

Wood: “I’ll explain in a minute.”

Shrugging, I depressed the handbrake, pulled the Princess into non-existent traffic, and followed the police car’s line around the corner. Instead of taking one last gander at the scene of our misdemeanor, Wood stared intently at the opposite side of the street then lapsed into a pensive silence. 

Concentrating on the distant tail lights, trying to divine which way the officer would turn, I let Wood follow his train of thought in peace. I even refrained from letting out a whoop of delight when the police cruiser decided to turn the opposite direction of Nevermore. 

Wood (breaking his own silence): “This isn’t the way home.”

Me: “We’ve one more stop to make.”

Wood (falling back into his thoughts): “Okay.”

Me (glancing over): “You going to tell me what’s going on, or do I need to start pulling teeth?”

Wood (frowning): “I think I’ve got a pretty good idea why Sarah was acting so weird.”

Me: “Shoot.”

Wood (slowly): “A couple of minutes after you stopped shouting in the gazebo and I said goodnight to Laney, the front door of that big brick house across the way opened. All I could see were silhouettes, so I started playing ‘What Are They Saying?’ in my head.” 

Me (looking for a parking spot): “Always fun.”

Wood (nodding): “Eventually, without any hugs, kisses, or handshakes, one outline went back inside, and the other walked towards the street.”

Me (carefully pulling the Princess between two huge SUVs): “An inevitable outcome at a front door.”

Wood (flicking my leg for interrupting again): “I lost interest in the scene until I heard a woman’s voice call out, ‘Sarah! Wait!’. That’s when I saw our Sarah standing under a street lamp across the way, a second later another woman jogged up and handed her something.”

Me (shutting down the Princess’s engine): “Okay…”

Wood: “Morticia, I’m seventy-five percent certain the other woman was Josie Reville.”

Me (jaw involuntarily dropping): “You’re kidding. The Brownie Stealing Bench? Did you know they knew each other?”

Wood (half laughing at the end of his sentence): “No, I didn’t, but if Sarah were hanging out with Josie tonight, it would explain why she was so weird at first. The bad blood between you two is NOT a secret.”

Silently my mind whirred, churning out rational reasons why Sarah might intentionally spend time in The Brownie Stealing Bench’s company. Unfortunately, since I couldn’t fathom spending more than two minutes together with her, my imagination quickly went into overdrive. Spinning out one improbable possibility after another. 

Wood (nudging me): “I might be wrong. That’s why I asked you to drive by the house, I was trying to see if her name was on the letterbox, which of course it wasn’t.”

Me (drumming my fingers against the steering wheel): “The obvious way to prove you right or wrong is to knock on the front door. But that’s not going to happen. The Beagle’s Human is far too nosey for a successful stakeout, even if we used your car….”

Wood (splitting a spare cookie in two and holding half out to me): “Are you really that worried about it?”

Me (around my bite of cookie): “Maybe.” 

Wood pursed his lips at me.

Me (rolling my eyes): “Alright, I’ll be an adult and let it lie. There’s no accounting for taste. In any case, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to hang out here while I pop into Nevermore for a second?”

Wood (unbuckling his seatbelt): “Not a chance.”

Me: “It was worth a try.”

2.39 Oh, For The Love Of Peter Pan…

If you haven’t already guessed my youngest cousin, Robbie, came as an unexpected surprise to Uncle and Aunt Pearl on November twelfth, nineteen-ninety-four. Well, the news they were getting a new addition to the household was a surprise – the inevitable event didn’t happen for another seven months. 

Unlike our parental figures, the news didn’t faze us kids a whit.

Dwight secretly hoped they’d bring a puppy home from the hospital. Jesse worried Uncle would miss his hockey games. I blissfully ignored everything as I’d just discovered all the old trunks/cupboards/suitcases in the attic & started excavating them. I’m not sure about what Dylan or Ian thought about it – but it probably involved Legos.

What we didn’t appreciate at that point, though Aunt Pearl and Uncle probably did, was the steep age gap dividing us from Robbie. A gap that became glaringly obvious the year Robbie transformed into a teen. His teenage angst provided my cousins and me, who’d already transitioned into our twenties, with heaps of vaguely uncomfortable perspective on our own bouts of frightful behavior based on bad hair, worse judgment, and hormones. (And some serious entertainment for my Aunt and Uncle.)

Even more delicious?

Robbie had five additional targets for his pique.

Case in point, the Christmas after Robbie turned seventeen, I spent the entire day wishing I could kick his rear up around his ears. Why? For the whole of Christmas Day, he wouldn’t acknowledge my existence. He didn’t respond if I spoke, didn’t open the presents I made him, and tossed out his slice of cake after he learned I’d baked it. Plus, a whole host of other infuriating slights.

All because I busted him splitting a six-pack of beer with his buddies in Nevermore. 

Apparently, I’d ‘completely embarrassed him’ after he assured his friends I’d be ‘cool’ if they got caught. Seems, ‘cool’ does not include packing said buddies into the Princess like sardines, insisting on driving them home and blistering their ears every inch of the way. Heaping insult on injury, Uncle caught Robbie sneaking in with beer on his breath and grounded him for a month.

Lamenting the sad state of affairs to Aunt Pearl whilst washing the last of the dishes. (In point of fact, my place setting as Robbie had been in charge of the clearing up.) I wound up my woe-is-me-s with, ‘I was never this bad at his age.’ 

Aunt Pearl laughed so hard she needed to sit down.

After she stopped wheezing, wiped away a tear or two, she assured me I had my moments. Then gave me a few words of wisdom that not only helped me deal with Robbie’s prickliness but with Abraham’s as well. “Don’t worry, Dear, he’ll figure out you’re on his side, eventually. Until then? Pretend you’re a duck.” So when Abraham’s voice dripped with barely contained disdain, due to my summons, I let it roll off my back like so much water. 

Me: “Would you rather I track you down?”

Abraham: “Is that a threat?”

Me (exasperated already): “No, I’m asking, would you rather I track you down or simply request your presence?”

Abraham (gritting his teeth): “The beacon is fine.”

Me: “Okay. So now that we’re clear that I’m trying to respect your privacy and in no way threatening you. Which by the way, I feel the need to point out I’ve never done. I was wondering why you Flared at Orin.”

Abraham: “Ah, yes, your pets.”

Me (tossing my hands up): “My gods, you’re a pain in my ass.”

Abraham, not unlike Robbie in his teenage prime, calls forth the urge in me to kick something. Once, during one of our conversations, I booted a plastic lawn ornament so hard it sailed clean across the street where it landed spectacularly on Mrs. Snells’s (dragon of the front office of Rye High) front porch. 

That being said, Abraham’s never let me down. 

Abraham (honing in on the irritation): “You’re only here because I threatened one of your pets.”

To be fair, he’s not totally wrong.

Me (taking a deep breath): “You’re right, I came because you threatened Orin.”

Abraham exhaled expressively, not unlike a punctured tire, at my admission, and muttered something about forking pets I didn’t quite catch. 

Me: “But I asked you to stop by because I was wondering why you felt the need to Flare at all.”

Abraham (sullenly): Why do you care? It took you months to come here and help them.

Me (utterly failing to marshal my patients): “I GOT HURT, OKAY! NOW CAN YOU JUST ANSWER THE FORKING QUESTION?”

Wood (calling out): “You okay, Morticia?”

Me (stomping to the gazebo’s entrance so Wood could see me): “Fine, just mad.”

Wood: “Okay?”

Me: “I won’t be much longer…”

Watching Wood reluctantly turn back around, I listened to him resumed his conversation with Laney. Still fuming, I turned back around and found Abraham standing opposite me.

Abraham (his shoulders hunched): “Sorry, Caretaker.”

Me (trying to relax again): “Accepted, now tell me why you Flared….please.”

Abraham (shifting in place): “I mistook Orin for someone else.”

Me (disbelief shorting out my brain): “Who could you possibly mistake Orin for?… Did you got bored again and Flared at some random girl trying to freak her out, and Orin caught you?”

Abraham: “Who are you, my mom?”

Me (bouncing my toe against the floorboard): “Oh, for the love of Peter Rabbit…”

Oh. My. Lords.

He’s actually reduced me into sounding like Aunt Pearl, she must have said something along those lines million times while my cousins and I were growing up. Completely unhinged by this inadvertent bit of muscle memory, it took considerable effort to refocus on Abraham’s words while keeping the tip of my sneaker from connecting with something, anything solid.

Abraham: “…..traded punches with a while back.”

Me (ignoring the resulting eye roll): “Come again?”

Abraham (condescension laced his words): “Aren’t you listening? Some old dude I’ve never seen before was sniffing around Eliza.”

Me (raking my hand thru my hair): “Could be someone new.”

Abraham (trying to sound casual): “Maybe, but I couldn’t take the chance. You know since we’ve started going missing….”

Me (head jerking back): “Hold on, missing? Missing how?”

Abraham (sounding both smug and worried): “Neither Eliza or I noticed at first, but we haven’t seen Gus in nearly a year. Now, Sam, Maria, and Grady are nowhere to be found.”

Me: “Why didn’t you come to me?”

Abraham (brusquely): “I’m not one of your pets. I don’t need your protection. I’m investigating this myself.”

Struggling to shove aside my desire to punt his ass across the park – I took a deep breath and counted backward from twelve as I exhaled….

…Damn it, Abraham intentionally threatened Orin knowing I’d turn up so he could drop this bomb. For the love of Venkman – only Robbie in all his teenage glory – could come up with a method more labyrinthine than this to ask for help. Pushing aside the feeling I’d let Abraham down for later examination, I began navigating around his hardened shell of adolescent surliness.

Me (cracking my neck): “How about this, since I know where the Genesis Points are for the other Errants in town, why don’t I make the rounds and see what I find.”

Abraham: “While you do that, I can try and lure that dude out by circling my spot.”

Me (lighting lancing thru my stomach): “Actually, I was hoping you could do me a favor…”

Abraham (suspicious): “Depends.”

Me: “Since this unknown guy already found Eliza, there’s a good chance he’ll be back. So I was hoping you could guard her for me. If he turns up again, lead him to Nevermore.”

Abraham (bouncing on the balls of his feet): “Nice! Joseph will make mincemeat of him. Alright, I’ll do it if you promise to tell me what you find out.”

Me: “Deal. Anything about this guy stand out?”

Abraham: “No, just some skinny old dude in a green suit.”

It took some doing, but I managed to keep my smile on the inside at Abraham’s answer. You see, Orin is a great mountain of a man, who is neither old nor wears anything that could ever be mistaken for a suit or any shade of green.

2.38 Parlor Game No.1 – The Spirit Board

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(Laney’s design for the spirit board featured Morse Code…you know to weed out the undesirable tricksy spirits…)

Hunched over and walking backward around the picnic table, l concentrated on leaving an unbroken speckled line in my wake. A bemused Wood, who I caught from the corner of my eye, filching the last bite of baked beans off my plate, looked on. 

Wood: “You know, pouring salt on the grass is going to kill it, right?”

Me (concentrating on maintaining an even pour): “Between the dogs, sprinklers, and rain showers, the salt will wash away before any permanent damage is done, don’t worry.”

Wood: “But why are you salting the earth?”

Me (delivering the last words with my very best Count Dracula voice – which is still pretty bad): “It’s a two-for-one kind of deal. It keeps you safe from all the creepy-crawlies, and it’ll keep you safe from all the Creepy-Crawlies…”

Wood: “Safety first, that’s what you’re going with.”

Me: “Yup.”

Hiding my smile, I kept my eyes trained on the grains of Himalayan pink, Hawaiian black, and fresh hand-harvested sea salt sprinkling from the slit in the bag.

After a spot of investigation on the internet and a lengthy conversation with Joseph, I think we sussed out how The Woman In White was able to cross the spilled salt and attack me. The contents of the bag I’d grabbed from the supply closet that night in Nevermore weren’t precisely what I thought. Instead of pure rock salt Sam ordinarily ordered, this year, he bought a blend – equal parts gravel, urea crystals, and rock salt (of highly dubious quality). So between this less than stellar mixture and strength born of insanity – The Woman In White muscled her way across. 

We’re pretty sure.

Our lack of certainty on this particular point prompted me to use a salt blend Nevermore’s Residents helped me perfect but rarely use. 

The imperfect circle I’m drawing might be overkill, as Orin’s unknown Errant isn’t unknown to me. However, not knowing why Abraham Flared kept my hands steady and steps even while I finished my final revolution around the picnic table where Wood sat. 

Wood (sounding perplexed): “So what parlor game requires we sit within a ring of salt for safety?”

Me (walking back to the table and cramming the empty bag into my pack): “A spirit board.”

Wood (stupefied): “Ouija? Really? I can’t think of a single person I’m interested in contacting on the otherside.”

Me: “I know, but we’re not going to communicate with anyone there…”

With a flourish I placed the archival box, Aarti from the Historical Society lent me, in the middle of the table.

Wood (raising an eyebrow): “Okay…”

Me: “We’re going to try contacting the Grey Man.”

Wood: “Who?”

Opening the box, doing my best Vanna White impression, I flipped over formal photos, snapshots, snippets, and facsimiles. All the while explaining who Edmund Wynter was, his racket, the mystery surrounding his murder, and his notoriously active afterlife.

Me: “So what do you think? Want to give it a try?”

Wood (rolling his eyes): “I’m reconsidering my position on tiddlywinks.”

Wood loves all things weird and wacky but stands firmly in Houdini’s camp in regards to spiritualism. 

His wife, Laney, on the other hand, loves this kind of thing. In fact, she stitched me the spirit board I’d unfurled on the table years ago after I gave her first full tour of Nevermore. She wasn’t clear on exactly how it would help me with my duties as Caretaker, but she figured it was better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

(I didn’t have the heart to tell her spirit boards don’t actually attract their intended demographic.)

Me (trying for a reasonable tone while swallowing a laugh): “It might be our only chance to solve his murder…”

Wood: “Last chance?”

Me: “Sightings of him have dropped dramatically over the past twenty-five years.”

Wood (dryly): “Right. I’m sure the drop in sightings has nothing to do with the fact Wynter was murdered in nineteen-thirty-eight.”

Me: “We could ask him where he stashed his blackmail materials. If his wife or murderer didn’t already turn them to ash.”

Wood (momentarily forgetting he thought spirit boards were pure hokum): “You want to find Pandora’s Box? Think of all the trouble his blackmail ledger could cause, Wynter had access to every government record in Rye.”

Me (shrugging): “I wouldn’t read it, I hand it over to the police, they’d read it.”

Wood: “And Pandora only meant to sneak a peek inside that damned box. What if your great grandparents had something hushed up by Wynter? Wouldn’t you want to protect their memory? Or how about my Gran?”

A ripple of electricity arcing across my toes jolted me out of the hypothetical ethical pickle Wood’s question placed me in. Glancing around, I spotted a scowling Abraham standing in the entrance of the gazebo staring at me. Turning back to my Moon Bathing companion, I found the solution to two out of three of my burning dilemmas in the buzzing of his phone.

Me (snapping my fingers in inspiration): “Tell Laney you’ll call her back on video chat. She can help us break in the spirit board – you’ll get a boatload of husband points.” 

Wood, while muttering something about wishing Laney and I weren’t so close, answered his phone.

Wood: “Hey Twinkie, can you call me back on Facetime, please? Thanks…. Hey, where are you going?”

Me (getting up from the table): “The gazebo, my guy, just arrived.”

Wood (face lit by the glow of his phone): “Shout if you need me?”

Me (over my shoulder): “Of course! This shouldn’t take long.”

Stepping carefully over the ring of salt, I left Wood to catch Laney up with tonight’s entertainment. Walking past a glowering Abraham into the dim interior of the gazebo, he waited until I turned around and faced him before speaking.

Abraham: “I don’t care to be summoned, Caretaker.”

2.37.b Your Presence is Requested

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(This was as far as we got unpacking the basket when the Beagle and his Human walked by the 1st time!)

Unfortunately, due to the diet of worst-case-scenarios, my subconscious fed my waking mind all day. Wood and I arrived at Remembrance Park ninety minutes earlier than anticipated. Add to that the number of dogs who apparently called this neighborhood home, Wood and I discovered a few more people lurking in and around the pocket-sized park than expected. 

All of whom eyed our plethora of provisions warily – the humans, not the dogs – the pooches didn’t bother to give us more than a passing sniff.

Due to the aforementioned number of canines out on their nightly constitutional, Wood and I wordlessly bypassed the park’s fringe of grass and set our supplies on the single picnic table it offered to its patrons. 

By the time I’d inflated the solar camping lanterns, using my mighty lung power, Wood had finished disseminating the acrylic blankets between our persons and the table. And one nosey neighbor worked up enough nerve to lazily paraded his beagle past us.

The Beagle’s Companion (pointedly glancing at his watch): “Evening.”

Me (giving him a friendly smile): “Evening.”

Wood, ignoring everything other than the nibbles, started making quiet nummy noises over the wax wrapped sandwiches, cartons of sides, and thermoses of coffee inside the hamper. From the corner of my eye, I watched the Beagle lead his Companion around the base of the statue, past a trashcan, and behind the diminutive gazebo. (While endeavoring to keep Wood from spooning all the baked beans onto his plate.) By the time the two reemerged on the other side, we’d finished doling out our spectacular spread.

The Beagle’s Companion (craning his neck ever so slightly to take in our heaving table): “Evening.”

Wood (bobbing his head): “Evening.”

The Beagle, apparently annoyed at the lackadaisical pace, strained against his leash towards the street. No longer occupied by laying the table and unable to face my plate or wait until the dog & his human walked out of sight, I wobbled off the bench.

Me (gathering up our debris): “You start, I’m going to get this out the way.”

Wood, who’d just taken a sizable bite of a chocolate cupcake, nodded. 

Putting my feet on auto-pilot. I followed the line the Beagle took around the statue to the trashcan, using my Knack to scan for the lingering Vita leftover from the unknown Errant’s Flare. What I read left me torn between engaging in a wild bout of weeping or succumbing to a fit of giggles. 

Either way, the knots in my stomach slackened.

Disposing of my handful of detritus in the trash, I continued around to the back of the dainty gazebo, pulling up only after I lost sight of Wood and the Beagle’s overly interested Companion. Working quickly, I pulled the pen knife out of my pocket and used its keen edge to prick both my thumbs. Stepping into the shadowy interior, carefully crossing its creaky floor, I paused for a moment at the park-side entrance to give the thread of lingering Vita a quick tug.

Me (my exhaled words bellowing in the cold air): “Abraham, please meet me here tonight.”

Pressing my bloody thumbs on the posts on either side of the entrance, I set the beacon. Finished, I danced a happy half jig all the way back to the picnic table.

Wood (turning in his seat at the sound of my shoes scuffing across the pavement, shot me a grin): “If we start dancing underneath the full moon, someone will definitely call the cops on us.”

Me (sitting down at the table): “Okay, no dancing.”

(Thankfully, Wood chose not to question what I cut my thumbs on – he just passed me his travel-sized first-aid kit.)

Wood (piecing on the morsels left on his plate): “So how did you plan on passing the time until your guy arrives? I assume you brought something in those bags…”

Me (replying thickly between bites of potato salad): “Parlor games.”

Wood: (in mock disappointment): “Parlor games? You invite me out for a spot of midnight Moon Bathing, and you brought tiddlywinks? Wow, Morticia….”

Me (grinning around a bite of bacon/beef/elk meatloaf sandwich): “Never fear Dourwood Utley I’ve devised something more diverting than tiddlywinks for you.”

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