Tag Archives: penny dreadful

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

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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.”

2.36.b Sunday Morning Pancakes

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Giggly voice number one: “Her eyes are open, and she’s sitting up.”

Muffled voice number two: “Is she wearing pants?”

Giggly Voice number one: “Nope.”

Catapulted from my revere, I rotated my head and discovered a dark eye below a mop of darker curls surveilling me through a crack in the door. Giggly voice number one, aka my niece Ruby, squealed in response to my regard and attempted to flee the scene – only to plow into and knock over her older brother Theo whom she’d forgotten was standing behind her.

Theo (yelling and kicking the door open wider): “GET OFF ME!”

Ruby (crawling up Theo’s prone form): “She saw me! She saw me!”

Technically the niblings aren’t supposed to open bedroom doors (even temporary ones), but they know I’m a soft touch. 

Me (grinning): “Pipe down guys, or you’ll wake the whole house. Let me find my pants, and I promise I’ll be right there.”

Ruby (streaking down the hall and into the kitchen): “She’s coming to help! She’s coming to help! Auntie Morticia will tell you huckleberries don’t go in……”

Me (getting up to check on her still flattened brother): “You okay down there?”

Theo (groaning): “No, she punched me in the stomach.”

Me (looking down at him): “You gonna be okay, or do you need some ice?”

Theo (clutching his middle theatrically): “No ice.”

Me: “You lay there for a minute while I change.”

Theo (wheezing): “Okay.”

Closing the door, but keeping an ear trained in Theo’s direction, I hastily swapped my pj’s for jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers. I grabbed my pack off the floor and Ira’s mysterious envelope off the desk and reopened the door in four minutes flat, finding Theo sitting cross-legged in the hall.

Me (standing in the doorway): “Feeling better?”

Theo: “Yup.”

Me (helping him up): “So what’s happening in the kitchen?”

Theo (falling in step with me): “Uncle Wood thought it might be fun to try making something other than banana pancakes for breakfast.”

Me (grinning): “Ruby’s not having it?”

Theo (returning my grin): “Nope.”

The pandemonium promised by Wood’s proposed shift to the Sunday Morning menu didn’t disappoint. 

Upon entering the kitchen, Ruby attempted to enlist my aid in explaining to Wood why banana pancakes were the only proper breakfast dish. My oldest nephew Avery stood at the stove carefully cooking bacon, loudly disagreed with his cousin, and extolling the virtues of his dad’s apple cinnamon pancakes. His younger twin sisters Iris and Violet, who didn’t seem to have a stake in pancake controversy, stood at the table enthusiastically mixing bowls of dry ingredients together. Inadvertently haloing their heads in flour and thoroughly coating the tabletop, floor, and aprons with a fine white dust. Wood, who was keeping a close eye on Avery, shot me a mischievous grin and started opening a can of pumpkin puree – sending Ruby into a near apoplectic fit.

Theo drifted towards his cousin, the stove, and the plate of cooked bacon. 

After reassuring Ruby, she’d get her beloved banana pancakes sans apples, pumpkin, chocolate chips, pears, huckleberries, and lingonberries. I crossed the kitchen, set my stuff down next to the door (well out of range of our enthusiastic cooks), donned an apron, and entered the fray.

Forty-seven minutes later, after brokering a pancake peace accord for the ages the niblings, Wood and I sat down at the table to eat. 

Theo, inspired by Scooby Doo’s infamous towering sandwiches, decided to create a new Sunday morning delicacy he named The Stack. Six alternating layers of banana, apple and pumpkin pancakes with pumpkin butter (think peanut butter only made of pumpkin seeds) and bacon between each layer, topped with maple syrup and more bacon. His culinary experiment intrigued everyone, so we all tried our hand at creating this concoction. (Save Ruby, who refuses to acknowledge the existence of alternative pancake flavors.) 

It was surprisingly tasty. 

Demolishing their Stacks in a nauseating spectacle, the niblings now hyped up on bacon, syrup, and carbs took off out the back door making enough noise to wake the dead, the neighbors, and their parents – in that order.

Deciding discretion the better part of valor Wood and I abandoned the kitchen, after making sure the food stayed warm, and there was enough coffee made, to keep an eye on the kids playing in the back garden. Leaning back in the deck chairs, our tummies full of warm autumn spices, we sipped our coffee contentedly.

Wood: “Any big plans today?”

Thinking of the paper-wrapped puzzle in my pack (the real metaphorical carrot helping me bypass my dread), I recalled the deal Wood, and I struck not so long ago.

Me: “Maybe. When’s Laney coming home from the conference again?”

Wood (arching an eyebrow): “Monday. Why?”

Me (warming both my hands on my mug, staring straight ahead): “What are you doing on tonight round about midnight?”

Wood: “I’d planned on sleeping. But I gather you’ve got a counteroffer?”

2.35 Lillith vs. Morticia

Daily Harvest - Halloween mockupjpeg

(Yeah, the Halloween mock-up looks just as silly in my mind’s eye as I thought it would!)

Wood, knowing the answer to my question, finished the rest of his beer in one long pull and left to fetch another. 

I’d texted him the news the moment Leo and I parted ways in the Rusty Hinge’s parking lot. The string of emojis he sent back mirrored my own thoughts on the matter. 

On the other hand, my cousins, close to succumbing to sugar comas, only showed a flicker of interest in my intelligence. Though in fairness, their comatose states were enhanced by twenty-five minutes of sprinting from pillar to post and beer. 

Fortunately, nothing, including Morpheus’s sweet embrace, could tamp down Dwight’s professional training and natural curiosity. 

Dwight (visibly forcing the word out): “Who?”

Lounging on the veranda’s railing, as was my custom, I was perfectly placed to watch their reactions in the dim light radiating from the open kitchen door – only Uncle was inscrutable. Sitting, as was his habit, in the comfy chair at the farthest end of the porch fully engulfed in shadows.

Me: “The Brownie Stealing Bench, Josie Reville.”

A collective groan, plus a few choice words, filled the air (the Mynah birds were out of earshot ). 

During the ensuing silence, due to everyone taking a healthy slug from their bottles, I’d have bet money that my relations were replaying a dusty old memory starring Josie and her pack of sycophants. (I wasn’t the only one she’d used to sharpen her poisonously honeyed tongue, just the first of us to ping her radar.)

A disturbingly loud crash from the kitchen treat makers and Susan’s subsequent shout of ‘everyone’s fine’ broke the spell my words had unfortunately cast over the party.

Jesse (sounding confounded): “Did Lucas open a hell-mouth under Rye to lure her back?”

Me (giggle snorting): “No, she’s not vying to reign over hell, Western Regional Bank made her their Chief Loan Officer.” 

Dwight (absently): “Don’t discount the whole Queen of Hell thing entirely.”

Tad: “She’d make a good Lilith though, using her position in the bank to corrupt the hearts of men. Oh! If it helps, we could change your nickname to Sabrina. You already have that luscious red coat, and if you adopted a black cat and named him Salem, you’d really be cooking with gas.”

Carefully backing out of the screen door, Wood reemerged from the kitchen, his hands occupied by a tray ladened with the next round of brown bottles, which we proceeded to helpfully lighten for him. Only Dwight and Uncle declined seconds.

Wood (chiming during the distribution of beer): “Never gonna happen, Morticia Addams would never allow an upstart like Lilith steal her crown.”

Me (laughing): “Plus, I look terrible as a blonde.”

Wood: “That too.”

Sealing our complete agreement, which may or may not be rooted in an unfortunate episode of summertime boredom and an old bottle of peroxide, we clinked our bottles together. 

Jesse (stretching his legs out): “Hate to rain on your parade, but isn’t Lilith literally biblical in origin? Morticia Addams is just a shade over eighty. Lilith would wipe the floor with her.”

Tad (happily diving into the debate): “Wrong part of the multiverse. The original Archie comic version, Madam Satan, is two years younger than Morticia. Lilith, from Netflix’s Chilling Adventures, is less than three years old. Making Morticia the hands-down favorite in a face-off!”

Jesse: “The story is three-ish years old I grant you, but in the Chilling Adventures, Lilith was the second person ever to walk the earth and was literally taught magic by Lucifer. No dice beans and rice.” 

Winding up for the defense of his stance, Tad took a deep and audible breath.

Knowing from prior experience, their bickering over pop culture spin on for hours without any outside help. (And I knew Robbie, who’d just joined us from the kitchen, mug of chocolate in hand, would be unable to resist throwing Dr. Who’s Missy into the mix.) I decided to track back to an earlier point in the conversation. 

Me (looking at an inattentive Dwight): “How exactly can Josie become Queen of Hell?”

It took Wood tapping him on the shoulder before he resurfaced, requiring me to repeat my question.

Dwight (raking his hands thru his hair): “While I was covering the Grindle trial for the paper, I overheard a rumor…”

Wood (grinning): “That Rye really is built on a hell-mouth?”

Dwight (missing Wood’s comment he shook his head): “No, though that might make interesting copy for Halloween, I heard Lucas might be retiring soon.”

Robbie (leaning against the rail next to me): “So? He’s about the right age, isn’t he?”

My cousins reflected a similar sentiment back to Dwight. Wood and I exchanged uneasy looks.

Dwight (clearly still having only half his mind on our conversation): “That’s what I thought too. Which is why it seemed odd that the person repeating the rumor was warned they’d lose their job if word got out they blabbed. So I did some digging in the Harvest’s archive. Do you know how Lucas Reville got his start on the city council?”

We all shook our heads in unison.

Dwight: “He took over his Uncle’s seat midterm. Apparently said Uncle caught scarlet fever as a child and developed a significant heart murmur later in life. After it was discovered and on the advice of his doctor, he retired immediately. Making use of a little known bylaw that allowed a family member to assume his post mid-term.” 

Tad (making the connection Dwight laid out): “At least if Josie was crowned the Queen of Hell, she’d be out our hair, do you really think……..”

The niblings, hopped up on cayenne and chocolate, unintentionally cut Tad’s appalled question off by exiting the kitchen en masse. Jesse and Tad’s lot set about pleading their case to sleepover at Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s house while Susan and Dylan’s two started entreating Robbie, Ian, Dwight, Wood, and I to camp out with them in the living room. 

2.34.b Olly Olly Oxen Free

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(This was the lure Aunt Pearl placed before us to get my cousins and I to comply with her ‘photo op’!)

Tad was slicing himself a second piece of cake when I stole into the kitchen, returning my puckish grin he saluted me with a wave of the cake knife. Easing open the screen door, Squiddy and I slipped onto the back porch and quietly shut it behind me. Tucking in next to Wood, who’d stationed himself in the patio chair next to the dinner bell, he handed me a beer he’d had waiting at his elbow.

Wood (softening his voice): “You’re losing your touch Morticia, twenty minutes?”

Me (twisting the cap off my beer): “The small fry were harder to fool than my cousins.” 

Speaking of those five adorable lookouts, they’d shifted from shouting out hints to peppering my cousins with questions. 

Do you see her dad? / Uncle Ian, do you want to borrow my flashlight? / Did the blueberry bushes just move? I’m pretty sure I saw it move! / Can I try looking? Please! / Have you ever caught Auntie Morticia dad? 

Uncle (sounding amused): “Once or twice.”

Dylan (over his shoulder, his eyes still scanning the yard): “More than that!”

Me (blandly): “Not since we were twelve, and I figured out no one cool wears neon.”

My reply sent a laugh rippling across the line of lookouts – because both Dylan and Ian’s frolicking kitten t-shirts sported a neon hue – pink and orange, respectively. A minute ticked by, then two, but none of the kids registered who’d made the funny, which sent a corresponding ripple of stifled chuckles thru the adults seated behind them. About the time I figured the only way they’d work out I was literally standing under the dinner bell was by ringing it, my youngest niece grew bored with her peripheral participation in the game and turned around.

Standing still as a statue, I watched Ruby’s eyes wander down the line of dim adult silhouettes until they landed on Aunt Pearl – three seats away from me.

Ruby (trying a parental end-run): “Grandma, can we make special coco now?”

Aunt Pearl (a smile in her voice): “It’s a little late, dear, you need to ask your papa if it’s okay.”

Intent on securing a cup of cayenne laced dark chocolate coco, her gaze slid right over me and on to Tad standing just inside the screen door on my left. The other kids perked their ears up but continued to keep their eyes aimed forward.

Ruby (squinting): “Papa, can I have some special hot coco?”

Tad (trying hard to contain a laugh): “After you find your Aunt Morticia.”

Ruby (expressively exhaling): “But it’s taking forever! And dad won’t let us help…”

Smothering a wide grin, I leisurely raised my hand towards the leather strap attached to the bell’s clapper, blocking her view of Tad’s face for a few seconds. When she succumbed to a fit of giggles, I knew my hint had been successful.

Ruby (pointing at me still tittering): “Now, can I have some special coco?”

Aunt Pearl (getting up): “You can be my sous chef.”

This appointment instantly redirected the other nibling’s attention off the backyard and spawned a chorus of protests. (Aunt Pearl’s helper gets to lick the pan – after it’s cooled sufficiently.)

‘Why does she get to be the sous chef?’ / ‘She hasn’t found Auntie Morticia’ / ‘That’s not fair!’

Ruby (thrilled at the chance to cover herself in glory): “Oh yes, I did! She’s right there.”

Pandemonium broke out on the back porch as the kids followed Ruby’s pointer finger and realized they’d been outfoxed. The adults split a seam, the lookouts started hollering for my cousins, and I rang the bell ending the game. 

By the time my cousins slowly rambled across the lawn, joining the rest of us on the porch, the nieces and nephews were in a full-tilt-tizzy; trying to figure out how I’d snuck past them, how long I’d been standing behind them and why Squiddy covered in fir needles….Aunt Pearl, heading off the inquisition, brought a bit of peace to the proceedings by herding the niblings inside to help her concoct the hot cocoa. 

My cousins didn’t bother to ask how I’d outflanked them – the liberal distribution of dirt and detritus on Squiddy, and I told the story. Though they did give me a series of high-fives, attagirl’s and a few friendly pats for Squiddy. (I did divest myself of my cephalopod friend, draping him over the bracket holding the bell, I needed a reprieve from his woolly magnificent.)

So after a quick detour to collect our promised slices and scoops (Wood and Uncle following us in for their second helping of dessert and Tad for his third), we regrouped back on the veranda and started talking about this and that. All of us keeping a half an ear on the din emanating from the kitchen – the clanging of pots and pans, opening and closing of cupboard doors, smacking of spoons against the rim of metal bowls, laughing and chatter – as the kids prepared their treat.

After a short strolling down memory lane, namely other epic bouts of kick the can, we fell into a comfortable silence. 

Right up until I tossed a tiger into our midst.

Me (glowering at my beer): “You’ll never guess who I ran into the other night…”

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