Tag Archives: penny dreadful

2.07 Bad News Everyone!

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Parting ways with Sarah at the stairwell, we set out to complete our separate missions – the only hitch in the giddy-up? 

Little Ben wasn’t in his office. 

To clarify, not only was his person missing – but so was his desk, dream boards, and Lottie (his secretary).

Which prompts the question, what the hell? 

Unwilling to waste my time cooling my heels in front of an obviously unoccupied office, I strolled down the corridor, peering thru doors hoping to catch someone between calls. But unfortunately, at three pm, on a stormy Friday afternoon, no one was around. 

Which suited me just fine. 

In Nevermore, there are two desks which remain occupied during business hours – Reception and Receiving – and one of those desks is manned by a veritable fount of office gossip, Leo Wasinski. Anyone could tell me where to find Little Ben. But Leo could tell me what prompted the office switch, details on the move and probably what Little Ben had eaten for breakfast. (Plus I was absolutely dying to see what enthusiastic but odd creation his knitting needles had festooned his frame with today.) 

Beelining it back downstairs, I found the gentleman right where I knew he would be, working diligently at his desk on the loading dock. And not for the first time, I wondered how exactly he managed to acquire his seemingly inexhaustible stream of insider information – while sitting in plain view of anyone walking by.

Receiving is many things, but private is not one of them.

A squeaky hinge alerted Leo to my entrance into his territory, “Hey boss!”

Beholding his hat, it took a moment to frame a proper reply – as it seemed I’d interrupted it in the midst of strangling and devouring him whole.

Me (laughing): “What is on your head!”

Leo (his grin hitting two hundred watts): “Pete!”

Me (rolling my eyes): “Hello, Pete!”

If you’re Leo; it’s perfectly normal for your winter headgear to unhinge its jaw and start swallowing the top of your skull, while its body coils around its “snack’s” neck in order to choke Leo into submission. (It did look really warm & fuzzy and surprisingly cute, Leo is very talented – but twisted.)

Leo (chuckling): “Pete’s an endangered striped whipsnake. The Naturalist Club is raising money and awareness by selling handmade hats and scarves featuring endangered animals to fund our move. This is my contribution to the cause…”

Me: “Wait. Rewind, the Naturalist Club is moving?”

Leo (dimming): “Hadn’t you heard? You’re not the only one Ben’s booted from Nevermore. He gave the Club three months to move and cut off access to the grounds for our programs.” 

Me (shocked): “Little Ben doesn’t have the authority to do that.”

Placing a boot against the metal stool next to his desk, he shoved it towards me.

Leo (no longer smiling): “Sit.” 

I took the hint.

Leo: “Little Ben’s the Provisional Proprietor.”

Holy mother forking shirt balls. 

Me: “What? How? When?”

Leo: “The day after you moved out of the Cottage, he switched offices and made the announcement. He’s been holed up there ever since, ‘planning Nevermore’s future’. Last week he started in earnest, offering early retirement to all the old-timers, axed the apprentice program, asked the Club to leave, and he’s scheduled a meeting with the head of the Historical Society for this coming Tuesday. Make of that what you will.”

Me (voice tight): “So he’s eliminating all the programs I pulled in.”

Leo (eyeing me): “Pretty much. He’s also nixed the plans to certify Nevermore as a Natural Habitat.”

Taking a deep breath, I shoved my fury and four-letter opinions down towards my toes. Leo may have been the first person I hired as Caretaker, who knits marginally inappropriate attire for work and whose gregarious nature makes him a riot to hang with – but at heart, he’s a gossip. 

The last thing I needed to do was blow my top like Vesuvius – in front of him. 

Me (evenly): “Has anyone brought this up with Big Ben?”

Leo: “Can’t, he hasn’t been home since he left for vacation. Little Ben’s promotion came via letter.”

Me (eyes wide): “Wait, Big Ben didn’t come back for the holidays?” 

Leo: “Nope.”

Well, that explains why he hadn’t called to wish me a Happy Christmas last year.

Me: “Is he okay?”

Leo (shrugging): “As far as I know.”

Me: “Well, crap. At least this answers my question.”

Leo raised an eyebrow.

Me (getting up): “Where Little Ben’s office is.”

Leo (smiling again stood with me): “Another interesting item? I have it on good authority Big Ben’s letter arrived well before Little Ben issued you your pink slip.”

Not sure what to make of that morsel of information, I decided to change the subject.

Me (trying to pull off cheerful): “I’ve never asked, but do you ever make custom hats for people?”

Leo (cocking his head): “Sometimes, why?”

Me (a wicked smile wreathed my face): “I believe I’m in need of a giant….”

Leo split a seam when I described exactly what I was hoping he could knit up for me, after some technical questions and measurements he assured me he could make my vision come to life. 

My cousins will never forget about me in the Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool again! Woot!

2.06 Curiouser and Curiouser

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A wave of sound crashed over me when I pulled open the door. It seems it’s one of those days down here.

Hoping my ears wouldn’t start bleeding, I waded my way into Sarah’s Domain & Depository towards the epicenter of sound. I could practically see the Beastie Boys’ beats bouncing around her workroom like some crazy red rubber ball.

Sarah’s Law #11: The higher you crank the volume, the faster you work. 

This law applies equally well, too (working thru) feelings, paperwork, and home repair. With the side benefit of warning all who approach of her current mood – whatever’s playing plus its relative decibel level equals her state of mind. (Essentially her stereo doubles as a mood ring.)

What did today’s selection tell me about Sarah’s current disposition? 

Fight For Your Right + Unadulterated Din = Irked at Little Ben or Filling out Forms*

(It can’t be both: I hadn’t heard the bass throbbing THROUGH the door)

When I made it to the threshold of her office, I discovered my second guess won the prize. A veritable snowdrift of unfamiliar reports littered the top of Sarah’s desk, easing my trepidation about dropping by Nevermore unannounced (from our long association I knew she’d take any excuse for a break). The woman herself sat with her back towards me, filling in a spreadsheet on her computer.

Waiting for her fingers to stop flying across the keyboard, my own fished around in the Pulp book bag I’d borrowed from Beatrice, while my eyes scanned foreign diagrams/graphs/budgets. When Sarah finally paused, I dropped seven-sealed plastic bags on her desk. The unexpected deposit caused her to jump about a mile out of her chair, and by the time she’d recovered (and reduced the volume on No Sleep Till Brooklyn), my butt was firmly planted in her guest chair.

“You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

Unable to keep the mischievousness out of my smile, “Nearly? I’ll try harder next time.” Gesturing to the bags steepled in front of her, while she continued to theatrically clutch her heart (I say theatrically because she was clutching the right side of her chest), “But perhaps you’ll forgive me in exchange for some marshmallows?”

“Marshmallows!” Quicker than a puma pouncing on its prey Sarah opened the bag closest to her and popped a square of cherry-lime into her mouth, effectively cut off all speech. When she started opening up the other bags to stick her face inside and inhale their scents (and filling her cheeks). I decided to intervene on behalf of her tastebuds, raspberry, chocolate, ginger, cherry-lime, lemon poppyseed, vanilla, and pineapple should not commingle. 

“I know we agreed on fifty dollars worth…” Exaggerating her chewing, Sarah held up her index finger to pause my words. 

Finally finished her spot-on imitation of a chipmunk, “I don’t really deserve any in the first place since I gave you the wrong arrival time for the remains.” Putting down the ziplock, she looked forlornly at their contents. “Sorry again…”

I’d called her a couple days after The Confrontation, asking if KARB’s news desk mixed up the arrival date for Tiffany Grindle’s remains. Turns out Little Ben rifled thru and upset her paperwork (without her knowledge) leading to two sets of paperwork getting shuffled together and her giving me a Vernan Jones’s arrival date instead. Sarah fell over herself, apologizing for the inadvertent blunder. 

But none of the Residents got hurt, and the Woman In White was neutralized – so a deal is a deal. (And in fairness I’m only delivering on half of it: Mr. Nelson, in addition to absconding with my mystery, sampled every flavor before he polished off the pumpkin-spice and apple-cinnamon portions). 

Motioning towards the confections, “I already accepted your apology. But if you don’t think you deserve any, I could always take them back…” My teasing rejoinder resulted in Sarah whipping the bags out of sight while emitting a marshmallow muffled growl. “…that’s what I thought. But the real reason I stopped by, beyond needing the Lavender Lady to stop smelling like a candy shop, was to pick up some boxes Little Ben said you’re hanging onto for me?”

“Oh yes, His Highness and your boxes.” Rolling her eyes heavenward, she stood up and walked a few paces to her closet, “I caught Himself in the midst of tossing them in the compactor.” Ignoring my offer to help (not that I was supposed to be lifting anything), Sarah scrabbled around under the hanging coats and eventually produced four dusty cartons. 

“That’s it?”

Cocking her head to the side, Sarah answered, “Yes?…”

A laugh popped out of my mouth, unbidden, “Four? He made it sound like there was at least a dozen!”

“That’s His Highness for you, making mountains out of molehills.” 

Shaking my head, I took a closer look at the forgotten cartons. Three sported labels with the enlightening description of “stuff” written in my hand. The nonconformist fourth, by far the grimmest of the lot, was devoid of markings and bound up with twine, “I’ve not a single recollection of what’s inside any of them…”

My comment was cut short by the insistent ring of Sarah’s desk phone. Putting her index finger to her lips, she picked it up, “Mortuary……Yes, Phoebe’s here. Yes, she’s picking up her boxes. Nope……….. Yes………………….. Sure…… I’ll get right on that….Okay, bye.” 

Replacing the receiver with a sigh, Sarah looked over at me, “His Highness has requested the pleasure of your company.”

“Well, crap.” 

“That about sums it up. Have a marshmallow.” 

While chewing the square of delightful raspberry fluff she’d offered me, I toed my boxes of mysterious “stuff”. Then applied more pressure until they shifted slightly. Crap, they didn’t fall within my light-duty lifting limitations set by Wood…

Sarah happily solved my dilemma before I finished chewing, “Why don’t you head up now. I’ll load the boxes in your car and leave your keys with Sam. That way, you can make a clean getaway when you finish up with His Highness.” 

Laughing, “I will gladly take you up on your gracious offer. Even though I know you’re really avoiding filling out all that new paperwork for a few minutes more.”**

Sarah blushed but didn’t deny it.

*Personally I think she cranks up the volume to stay awake while completing her paperwork – apparently Big Ben finds drool stained statements a tad unprofessional. 

**Despite my ribbing, it was a really nice offer. Not wanting to put her in an awkward position if my illegal adjacent after-hours visit ever came to light, I’d kept her in the dark about my injuries.

2.05 What Wood Doesn’t Know Won’t Kill Me

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The rain beat mercilessly against the Princess’s windscreen, leaning forward, I struggled to see anything thru the deluge. The wipers were doing their level best, but visibility still sucked. As omens go, I’m pretty sure someone is telling me to go back home.

But after nineteen days of hiding out in the Lavender Lady, waiting for my face (among other portions of my anatomy) to resume something akin to a natural hue, I needed a new set of walls to look at, hence my current unsanctioned expedition in the Princess.

The only real positive to come out of the aftermath of my confrontation with the Woman In White (beyond the demonstration of my friends and family’s affections, and you know, stopping her), was winning the Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool. 

In an unexpected, unprecedented, and insulting twist, Uncle revealed that no one placed a wager on me ruining the next family portrait! Which sent the pot into immediate adjudication, i.e., Aunt Pearl, who awarded it to me because I’d flown so far under everyone’s radar. Happily, the rude windfall sorted out my rent & bills while keeping me in chicken wings during my “seclusion”.

(I mean seriously not one of my cousins bet on me? I’ve sported my fair share of lumps, bumps, and bruises over the years! Gggrrr…)

But back to me driving thru a monsoon in the Princess.

The night Wood patched me up in my Aunt & Uncle’s kitchen, he extracted two promises as payment for services rendered. The first? My solemn word that I would follow doctor’s orders (i.e., his) to the letter until he pronounced me fit as a fiddle. Which, other than embarrassing bouts of shirtless poking and prodding (which found me unearthing, from the bottom of the undies-drawer, my only full-coverage-granny-style brassiere), were easily followed. 

Until this morning, when the Stir-Crazies came to visit, accompanied their annoying cousins Ants-In-The-Pants and Cabin-Fever. 

Exacerbating the brouhaha, these unwanted visitors were causing in my psyche. My darling friends, in their zeal to help me heal – furnished me with anything and everything they thought I might require (Beatrice brought books from PULP, Laney supplied takeout and Uncle brought over his chessboard). Which inadvertently, but successfully, stripped me of any reason/excuse to leave the Lavender Lady. 

Until an hour ago. 

The Golden Ticket to the magical world of adventure outside the Non-Judgmental-Elastic-Waistband-Pants-Land? A sour email from Little Ben complaining about my “boxes of old junk” cluttering up Sarah’s Domain & Depository. 

Normally, I’d let his grumbling roll off my back, like water off a duck, but the way things stand right now? It wouldn’t be politic to intentionally irritate him. What if he started paying attention to my skulking around Nevermore? Things could get unnecessarily sticky.

Thus with my justifications firmly in place, confident in my ability to talk my way out of trouble if Wood found out about my expedition (he’d only prohibited driving FLYT fares). The Princess and I motored towards the main gates of Nevermore at a perfectly respectable hour……under a National Weather Service Winter Storm Warning. (Which adds a certain zing to the adventure! Don’t you agree?)

Pulling in next to a maintenance truck, I took a moment to study (as best I could) the vintage neon sign of The Three Roses (Nevermore’s onsite flower shop). The high winds made me ridiculously glad Little Ben had finally been persuaded to refurbish it two summers ago (it could probably withstand a tornado now).

Unable to stall any longer, I scampered from the Princess thru the automatic doors of the main building. Which inadvertently placed me on a collision course with Nevermore’s Chief Grounds Keeper. Luckily, Ira possesses excellent reflexes because I didn’t see him in my mad dash.

Ira (a smile creasing his face): “Phoebe? You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

Not counting Big Ben, Ira’s Nevermore’s longest-tenured employee (he has me beat by twenty-five years).

Me (pushing my hood away from my face, returning his smile): “Right back at you! How are things?”

Ira (glancing over his shoulder and lowering his voice a notch): “Fair to middling, but I can’t talk now. Call me soon, and I’ll buy you a beer after work.”

Me (spidey senses tingling): “I’ll hold you to that.”

Tipping his cap, he walked out the doors, while I pondered his troubling words for a moment. 

Recalling my original objective, and hoping to pull off the secondary goal of avoiding detection by Little Ben and his secretary/spy Lottie, I hustled towards the setting of my recent spat of bad dreams. All the while silently cursing my less than stealthy sneakers. As predicted, the notorious stretch of linoleum bordered by plain beige walls looked just as dull as I knew it would. This Proof of Blandness satisfied the small reservations my mind insisted on toying around with about coming down to the scene of The Confrontation. 

It didn’t hurt that my sneakers squeaked so much with every step I felt like an awkward participant in a dance party attended solely by boisterous but invisible mice.

2.04 The Black-And-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool

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Familiar Voice One: “Did you pick her?”

Click.

Familiar Voice Two: “Not sure I remember who I put my money on. Its’ been over a year since the last payout.”

Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Three: “Someone’s going to get paid! She’s the dark horse.”

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Four: “Can’t wait until Dylan gets here, and Dad opens the envelope.”

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Me (cracking my left eye open just a slit): “You are going to wear out the shutter on that camera.”

Robbie (unrepentant): “Morticia! Did we wake you?”

My cousins (in descending order Jesse, Dylan, Ian, Dwight, and Robbie) agree with Wood that the nickname Morticia fits me better than my given one of Phoebe.

Me (staring blearily up at four out of five of my cousins crowding around the bed): “Yes. What are you guys doing here? And why is Dylan on his way?”

Jesse (continuing to snap pictures of me): “Mom texted everyone that the Black-and-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool was paying out today!” 

Fantastic.

The Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool is one of our clan’s seriously cracked institutions, inspired by Aunt Pearl and observed by my cousins, their spouses, and me. 

On Thanksgiving Day six years ago, while arranging us in that year’s woodland-inspired family photo, Aunt Pearl let out a gusty sigh and thanked us for finally giving her her-heart’s-desire. We were baffled. None of us had any announcements pertaining to grandkids, promotions, or winning a marathon. So what did we give her? Besides each of us wearing (with minimal grousing) a sweater sporting a cuddly woodland creature on its chest? (At least she’d given up making us dress up as the woodland creatures. I feel sorry for my nieces and nephews.) 

The Answer: A group photo unmarred by bruises, gauze, or plaster-encased limbs.

(Personally, I don’t believe the addition of crutches, slings, or the occasional brace really detracts from these tableaus of mortification she insists on and includes in her annual Christmas letters – but I digress.)

My cousins and I thought her claim pure exaggeration. During dinner, we went round and round with Aunt Pearl, until in a fit of exasperation, she pulled out every photo album in the house (there were a dauntingly large number of them) and challenged us to find single unblemished holiday, any holiday would due, photo. Which, much to my Aunt’s disgust (and due to her excellent pie, Uncle’s smooth bourbon and the overall level of tryptophan), evolved into a bout of reminiscing over all the stupid shirt we did which unintentionally mucked up Aunt Pearl’s carefully planned and themed snapshots. 

Idle speculation from Jesse’s partner Tad compounded her indignation when he wondered who’d be the next one to mess up a family photo. The question caused instantaneous Bedlam when we all pointed at each other and loudly declared why our chosen-one would be “The One” to complete the deed. 

Then Dwight came up with a brilliant idea. 

To prove who guessed correctly and therefore won – we’d write our predictions down, put them in an envelope, seal it up and wait until one of us showed for a holiday sporting a cane, band-aid, or splint. To make things interesting, each of us stuck in a hundred bucks in, thus establishing the Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool (in case you’re curious, Dylan triggered the first payout by showing up the following Easter with his left arm encased in a cast).

The crucial detail here? You must be present to win.

It doesn’t seem like Aunt Pearl totally bought whatever Wood’s explanation was last night – so she called in the cavalry. 

Me (struggling to untangle myself from the blankets): “But Chinese New Year isn’t until next week.”

Uncle refuses to celebrate New Year’s Eve or Day, claiming seven days isn’t enough time to recover from his Christmas hangover. (I think he got tired of the squabbling over who had to don Baby New Years’ diaper for the photo.) So we now celebrate Chinese New Year with our neighbors, the Lu’s, instead (much to everyone’s satisfaction). 

Ian (drily): “You think that shiner will be gone by then?” 

Me (mumbling): “Maybe if I put a steak on it?”

Finally prevailing over the blankets and stiff muscles I sat up, the collective hiss from the four boys cut off the rest of my reply. Jesse even stopped snapping pictures (we record every injury responsible for a payout, it’s not as weird as it sounds). Looking down, I realized the scoop neck tank I wore to bed last night gave them a fair idea of the sheer square footage my bruise covered.

Dwight (recovering first): “You’re going to need an entire cow to cover that sucker.”

Robbie (sarcasm dripping off his words): “What happened? Purple hair too passé now? Decided to dye your skin instead?” 

Me (rolling my eyes): “No. A colossal land squid engineered on the Island of Doctor Cousteau attacked me! The Doctor set the enormous invertebrate on my trail after I uncovered his dastardly plan to steal Rye’s entire water reservoir to create an aquatic inland base. Of course, I foiled Cousteau’s evil agenda, but not before he told Squiddy to ink me! Fighting him is how I got banged up and dyed.”

Several beats past while my cousins considered the merits of my explanation.

Jesse (laughing): “The use of a historical figure, a cephalopod, and transforming a classic science fiction story to suit was inspired! Nine out of ten stars!”

Aunt Pearl may have called in the calvary – but we’ve hurt ourselves enough over the years that we don’t fess up to how it actually happened – because it’s usually really dull. Walked into a bulldozer while texting. Tripped on our own shoelace, dog, or second base. Got punched in the eye by a three-year-old. None of these make good stories. So unless we lose consciousness or hospitalization occurs, we don’t fess up to how a payout worthy injury actually occurs.

That being said, I was pushing the limits of the acceptable non-disclosure range of injuries. 

Which explains my cousin’s current close quarters hovering.

Me (smiling): “Only nine? Well, then I’m not going to lift up my shirt so you can record the magnificence of Squiddy’s inking!”

This was met with a chorus of boos and laughter.

2.03 The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth

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So Wood took ballet. 

I wonder if his Gran taped his recitals…I bet she did. 

The glimmerings of a party started percolating. We could watch all of Wood’s performances in sequence while eating potato salad, pasta, and wings. The wings would, of course, require a plethora of sauces, Thai sweet chili, Kansas City bbq, Hawaiian, Korean bbq, teriyaki, maple-chipotle, ginger-scallion, mole, tandoori, honey-mustard…

Pulling myself physically from the visions of plum sauce dancing in my head, my mind slid back to the man winding cotton around my wounds. 

Do they teach conversational wizardry in medical school? Sounds like a class Wood would ace, it’s probably an elective. Because trading truth for truth feels like a tactic discovered by Hippocrates (Father of Western Medicine). Which he then handed down to his students, who handed it down to their students, and on thru generations until it landed in a modern medical text as Chapter Seventeen – Securing The Truth: Ten Ways to Sway Your Patient.

What’s worse? It’s working.

The thought of paying Wood’s twenty-year-old Twinkle-Toes Revelation with a bunch of lame excuses made me feel rotten to the core. Especially since I’ve kept my knack a secret from him since the day we met…

Me (sighing): “How did you know I’d gotten hurt at Nevermore tonight?”

Wood: “Logic. It’s the only place where you wouldn’t call anyone for help. Sit still for a minute.”

With a snick of his scissors, he finished up my new wrappings. 

Me: “You’re right, I did happen at Nevermore.”

While I cast about for a way, to tell the truth, without telling the whole truth. Wood continued to ride the silence stretching between us (another tip from chapter seventeen, I’m sure). 

Me (watching him clean up): “So here’s the thing, I can’t tell you what happened.”

Yanking (and thankfully cracking) a can of cola from the fridge, he thumped it down in front of me, then dropped some impressively large pills next to it.

Wood (curtly): “Take these.”

Me: “But I can tell you why.”

Wood, after handing me my button-up, sat down and started balancing his chair on its back legs (a habit which Aunt Pearl’s been trying to break for years) while watching me thru narrow eyes. 

Me (fumbling with my sleeve): “Ever wonder why I’m still trying to save Nevermore from Little Ben? And Little Ben From himself?”

Wood: “Loyalty to his father?”

Me (now floundering with my buttons): “That’s part of it…”

Wood (softly): “Because you’re related to some of the residents there?”

He knew about the Residents? Panic lanced thru my stomach until it struck me who Wood was tactfully alluding too. Blinking rapidly, I focused on our different definitions of the word, which permitted the knots in my middle to slacken.

Me (deciding I’d buttoned enough buttons to pass muster, I chuckled without any humor): “That’s where it started, a newly minted nine-year-old’s melodramatic promise, to always take care of them, the best I could.”

Wood (lowering his chair onto all fours): “Those were extenuating circumstances…”

Me (wondering if a bruise turns colors when you blush): “Yes. Well. I never forgot about it. So when Big Ben put me in charge of Nevermore’s internal operations, basically everyone above and below ground, my promise expanded with my promotion. Which includes, no matter how annoying he is, Little Ben.”

Wood started to say something – but I cut him off – if I stopped now, I’d never have the courage to sail this close to the whole truth again.

Me (rushing): “I know what you’re thinking, but I can’t just abandon my promise just because Little Ben handed me walking papers. That’s not how it works. Tonight, these {waving hands} happened seeing those promise thru, and before you ask, I can’t promise you it won’t happen again.”

Leaning back, Wood stared at the ceiling processing. I tried and failed to rest my head on my crossed arms (seems bending at the waist isn’t for me at the moment, this should make picking up groceries/luggage/cat carriers for my FLYT fares exciting).

Wood (leaning towards me): “These promises, they’re what really prompted your sudden need to hike up Pumpkin Mountain?” 

Crap. Crap. Crap. Did he make the connection between the Fall Foliage Tour and Tiffany Grindle’s anonymous tipster? It didn’t matter, he’d know if I lied. 

Me (sighing): “Yes.”

Wood (nodding): “Okay.”

Me (wary): “Okay?”

Wood (meeting my gaze): “I’ll smooth thing over with Uncle and Aunt” Pearl.

Relief swept thru me (or perhaps the painkillers kicked in – it could go either way) and put a smile onto my face.

Wood (returning mine with a small sly one of his own): “Oh, don’t thank me yet, we still need to settle your tab.”

2.02 The Twinkle Toes Review

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(I imagine these were the cliffs Wood imagined I was pushed off of…)

Wood: “Sit. Tell me what happened.”

Following his directive, I took a seat on the table and stared at the floor while Wood did the doctor thing. First listening to my heart and lungs, then testing my ribs, making sure nothing was broken, and finally examining the bruise.

Me: “Wood, I fell…”

Wood (snorting): “Really? Who pushed you off the cliff?”

He continued his examination and waited for my response. Since I had no way of adequately explaining a bruise of this magnitude, I continued to flounder.

Wood (prodding me): “I’m your best friend first and your doctor second – I won’t rat you out. But I am also not going to tell your Aunt and Uncle there’s nothing to worry about if you don’t tell me the truth.”

He waited for a beat for my response. 

Wood: “This happened at Nevermore, didn’t it.”

Inspiration (or perspiration, hard to tell at the moment) struck, perhaps there’s a workaround…

Me (looking him in the eye): “Do you remember when we were fifteen, and you sprained your ankle really bad? But you wouldn’t tell me how it happened? You just asked me to trust you that it was a silly accident?”

Still pressing on various portions of my anatomy and asking ‘if that hurt.’ Which of course it did because my torso sported a bruise approximately the size of Montana.

Wood (guardedly): “I do.” 

Me: “I’m asking you to trust me. This isn’t a case of abuse or something worse. The goose egg and black eye happened when I slipped on some rock salt, which caused me to lose my balance and my face to bounce off a door. My hands got messed up when I got up from where I landed in the salt.”

Wood (starting to unwind my wraps): “And the bruise on your torso? It certainly didn’t happen by getting your foot caught in a coil of rope while practicing a pirouette right before your ballet recital. And who bandaged you up? Were they hoping you’d audition for The Mummy?”

Joseph was rather exuberant in his bandaging job.

Me: “That’s an oddly specific reference. Wait, are you trying to tell me you took ballet? That’s how you nearly broke your ankle? Ow!”

Concentrating very hard on the gauze pads on my palms (hopefully attempting to remove them with as little pain as possible – but I wasn’t holding my breath), his answer to my question sounded distracted. 

Wood: “It helped me with my footwork on the soccer pitch.” 

Curiosity ate me up.

Me: “How long did you stick with it? Why didn’t you tell me? I would have come and cheered you on! OW! What are you doing to my hand?” 

Gently prodding, the now oozing divots, he looked thoughtful.

Wood: “There’s something in this one. I took ballet for five years, Gran was the only one who knew, and I didn’t tell you because I didn’t think your homemade foam finger would be appreciated by the rest of the audience.”

Me (loftily stating fact): “My foam finger was epic and appreciated by all.”

When he started excavating into my flesh, all I could say/yell was ‘OW!’ which caused Aunt Pearl to inquire, thru the door, if Wood needed help torturing the truth from me. (Can you believe the woman teaches Sunday School?)

Me (trying to distract myself from what Wood was doing): “Hold on, when did you go to ballet class? How did….were they on Sundays? When Uncle and I went on our Safaris?”

Wood (holding what he found in my palm up to the light and inspecting it): “Yes.”

Proving how much the rest of me ached, I hadn’t noticed the extra sting of the leftover salt until Wood relieved me of it.

Me: “Seriously, why didn’t you tell me?”

Wood (a ghost of a smile passed over his lips while he concentrated on cleaning my wound): “I was a freshman in high school, the starting forward on the varsity soccer team and angling for a college scholarship. I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously if they knew the secret to my success.”

Me: “But I could have helped! Choosing music or making costumes! We could have had so much fun! I wouldn’t have told anyone, you know that!”

I saw the trap snap closed the second the words left my mouth. 

Conversational. Wizard.

Wood (carefully applying ointment): “Well, that bit you in the ass, didn’t it.”

Me: “Little bit.”

2.00 The Grey Man

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Turns out when you inadvertently scare the bejesus out of a septuagenarian, they don’t ask a whole lot of questions. 

Entirely engrossed in the mystery I’d lent him, Mr. Nelson didn’t notice me standing by the driver’s side door until I knocked on the window. After clutching his heart and hyperventilating for a few anxious moments, he leaned over and unlocked my door. 

I thought the Princess smelled like a fruit basket before. 

If the squares in his lap and the wrinkled cellophane packages in the back were any indication. He’d happily sampled his way through the entire marshmallow cornucopia. Sarah would just have to make do with twenty-five dollars worth of the suckers – she’d live. Handing me the Princess’s keys (locking him in the car without them felt slightly kidnapy), he finally noticed the swaths of gauze wrapped around my palms, wrists, and extending up my forearms.

Mr. Nelson (eyeing my bandages): “Are you up to driving?”

Me (shoveling reassurance into one word while turning over the ignition): “Yup.”

Pulling the Princess out of her impromptu hiding place, I gingerly steered the car while Mr. Nelson fumbled around in his seat.

Me (cranking up the heater): “You okay over there?”

Mr. Nelson (grumbling and struggling): “Yeah, the seat belt is wrapped around my arm…”

Me: “I’ll stop at the gates so you can sort yourself out.”

Mr. Nelson just grunted and continued to juggle the book, book-light, and marshmallows all the while trying to keep the seatbelt from strangling him. Neither of us appreciated the four speed bumps we bounced over on the way to the gates. He finally got his feathers smoothed by the time the Princess rolled to a stop at the Second Avenue entrance. Turning to place the remaining marshmallows into the box in the backseat – it was his turn to scare the bejesus out of me – with a rather loud and inarticulate exclamation.

Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. 

Me (staring wildly around, dimly registering the pricking of my toes): “What? Where?”

Mr. Nelson (jabbing the air wildly with his index finger): “Look! Over there!”

Looking around for the source of Mr. Nelson’s excitement – I glimpsed Joseph’s back as he strolled around the curve and out of sight. 

Mr. Nelson: “Did you see him? Did you see The Grey Man?’

Me (still trying to get a grip): “The Grey Man?”

Sitting back down in his seat, he gave me a look that made me wonder if I’d accidentally spoken in Swahili. Smoothing his re-ruffled feathers, Mr. Nelson took a deliberate moment before answering my question. Which was great because my heart couldn’t take another shock tonight. Who the hell is The Grey Man? 

Channeling my inner ostrich, I buried my head in metaphorical sand. This is tomorrow’s problem.

Pulling out into the quiet street, I steered the Princess towards my passenger’s house. 

Mr. Nelson (unknowingly stomping all over my tail feathers): “A bit before your time I dare say, before my own if truth be told. But they say Grey Man of Rye is, was Edmund Wynter. A corrupt politician from the early nineteen-thirties who was found one a quiet Sunday morning hanging from the oak tree in front of City Hall…”

Me (my foot barely touching the gas): “Serious?”

Mr. Nelson (a mischievous light in his eyes): “As a heart attack. The only clue? A note pinned on his chest with the words, ‘No More’ written on it.”

Me (the Princess moving at a crawl now): “No more? No More what?”

Mr. Nelson: “That question didn’t get answered for twenty years.”

Me (feeling like a myna bird): “Twenty years?”

Mr. Nelson: “A reporter at the Daily Harvest overheard a conversation when he was a kid, and remembered it. During a slow news summer, he started digging. Discovering not only the meaning of the note but the motive for Wynter’s murder – blackmail. Turns out Wynter, for a price, would alter any record in City Hall to suit. What his ‘clients’ didn’t know was he kept the original documents. Then when he needed a favor, he’d use the originals to extract it.”

Me: “But how does this relate to the Grey Man?” 

Mr. Nelson: “Right after Wynter’s gruesome death, people started to report sightings of him, wearing his trademark gray suit, all over town. Always looking over walls, thru windows, and around corners. It was whispered he was looking for his killer. However, after the story in the Daily Harvest, people began to wonder if he was really looking for his blackmail material, because none of his records ever resurfaced.”

How had I never heard this story before? Me, Morticia, Queen of the Macabre? (Mostly because people keep giving me skeleton themed gifts)

Me (snails were moving faster than we were): “Did they ever catch who killed him?”

Mr. Nelson: “No, and from the Daily Harvest coverage I’ve read, the police didn’t look very hard. Hey, your Uncle’s house is just up ahead. Can you pull in there?”

Me: “Sure. Why?”

Mr. Nelson (clearly excited): “I want to tell your Uncle I spotted the Gray Man! It’s been twenty years!”

Looking at my watch, which made me recall my current state of being (it was concealed by swaths of cotton), and because my ex-ray vision was down, I looked at my dash clock. Which informed me it was only ten o’clock. Still within calling hours of their house (which can extend pretty late if you have something interesting to say or show my Uncle). 

Turning into the drive, Mr. Nelson bounded out of the car before she’d rolled to a stop. Parking the Princess in her usual spot, I leaned my head against the headrest, took three deep breaths then opened the door. 

This should be fun.

1.74 Postmortem

 

Stepping past the now inert wooden box, up to the stainless steel sink I watched Joseph turn on the taps. Keeping my eyes firmly away from my mitts, since acknowledging them only made them hurt more enthusiastically, I concentrated all my attention on the inside of Joseph’s left elbow while he sluiced water over my wounds. 

If it weren’t for all the stinging the water would have felt nice. Its warmth helped to dispel the frigid echo of her hands on my heart.

Me (attempting to distract my mind): “You were going to make her a Resident, if she hadn’t attacked me, weren’t you.”

Joseph (absently): “Yes.”

Me (wincing): “But she attacked you first.”

Joseph (dryly): “I will admit that didn’t bode well. But I wanted to give her a chance at a different sort of existence.”

Me (cocking my head): “Why didn’t her attack work? On you I mean.”

Joseph (shrugging): “Does it matter?”

Me (wincing again): “Well yes, if you can teach the Residents what you did, it could help keep them safe.” 

Joseph (glancing sideways at me): “It isn’t something I can teach them to do.”

Me (sensing the knotting off of that subject, I moved on): “Okay…But how was she able to hurt me? And I her?”

Joseph (sounding distracted again): “Both are excellent questions.”

Me (gritting my teeth while he worked a boulder out of my left palm): “Are you going to answer them?”

Joseph (releasing my hands): “Yes, but not tonight. Keep your hands under the water while I find the first aid kit.”

Resting my temple against the cabinet above the sink, I closed my eyes and obeyed… 

Joseph startled me when he pulled my beleaguered appendages out from under the water and started drying them with a large piece of gauze. Seems I’ve acquired the new and useful skill of dozing off while standing up. Yet another talent which isn’t really résumé applicable. 

Tipping my head back I struggled to shove away my exhaustion, while Joseph started to apply ointment from the kit he’d found.

Me (casting about for a new topic while he worked on me): “How did you know she was here tonight?” 

Joseph (exasperated): “You think I don’t know when a Woman In White crosses into Nevermore? How did you know she was here? The message Mazy relayed stated her arrival wasn’t for a few more days.” 

Me: “Radio. Sarah let me down. County probably changed dates without telling her. Crap!!!”

Joseph (pausing in his application of bandages): What?

Me (looking him in the eye and waving my hands): How am I going to explain these to Mr. Nelson? 

So wholly occupied with the creation of at least a moderately plausible explanation for my current state I failed to notice when Joseph finished bandaging me up and started herding me towards the door. When I finally realized where we were heading (and the fact Joseph seemed inordinately amused by my highly improbable scenarios), I protested. He shouldn’t have to clean up the mess all by himself. When pointed out Mr. Nelson probably wouldn’t stay put forever, I was forced to concede the point.

Me (treading wearily to the end of the hallway): Sorry for ruining your offer of Residency.

Joseph (stepping a pace ahead and opening the outside door): The only apology owed is for underestimation of my skills.

Me (I started to apologize again until I saw the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth): Not pompous at all. 

Joseph (chuckling at my dry tone, he then sobered): Even after striking me I might still have given her a chance if she’d shown any remorse for her actions. But her attack on you proved her transformation into a Woman In White was complete. By coming here tonight, you undoubtedly saved a few of the Residents from being stripped.

Taking the straw he offered me, I tried to use it to subdue the wiggling feeling of guilt inside. 

Me (pausing just on the other side of the dumpster where I’d left Mr. Nelson and the Princess, using my quiet voice): Thank you for stopping her from…

Cutting off my gratitude Joseph placed a kiss on my forehead. Which warmed the very cockles of my heart.

Joseph (smiling): Your welcome. 

Smiling in return, I murmured my goodbyes and walked around the dumpster. 

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