Awarbling howl filled a quaint gazebo in the backyard of Emily Flanagan and her husband, Josh. Emily and her best friend, Audrey Hazeltine, were working out their harmonies for “Blackbird,” which they were going to perform that night at Greenwoods Senior Citizens Community. Josh had left their pet Rottweiler, Caesar, with them in the gazebo in the yard so he could answer the jangle of his cell phone in relative quiet.
Emily and Audrey glanced at each other mid-harmony and erupted into giggles as Caesar, still a puppy at heart despite being full-grown, decided to turn the singing duo into a trio.
“Perhaps Caesar should join us tonight?” Audrey said through her laughter. “He adds a certain flair to the song, don’t you think?”
Wiping her eyes from mirth, Emily patted the dog on the head, who had flopped down on the ground the moment they’d begun laughing, looking dejected they’d stopped so soon. “You did good, Caesar,” Emily said. The dog’s crooning was surprisingly pleasant and on-key for such a huge hound.
Inside, Josh grabbed a pad and settled in at one of the antique dining sets Emily had acquired for their shop, Flanagan’s Antiques Emporium. Throughout the call, he glanced up at his most prominent contribution to the store’s inventory—seven ornate wooden clocks, each over eight feet tall. As the clock
hands approached the hour, he picked up his pad and relocated to the kitchen table in the “home” part of the building before the clocks started chiming.
When rehearsal was over a while later and Audrey had left, Emily wandered into the kitchen and poured coffee, silentlyputting Josh’s mug in front of him before setting up opposite him with her Queen Victoria Commemoration mug. Josh mouthed a “thank you” to her, then pointed to the Rottweiler’s enormous head, which was settling down with ever-increasing weight on his lap. The Flanagans had inadvertently conditioned Caesar to expect, actually demand, a dog biscuit every time they had coffee. Emily got a biscuit from the jar and used it to lure Caesar’s head off of Josh’s lap.
Emily watched Josh with surprise and curiosity. He could be quite talkative in person but was not one for long phone calls. Yet he had been on this call for a good forty minutes. She busied herself clearing out old messages and texts on her cell phone. The instant Josh hit the button to end his call, Emily piped up with, “What’s going on?”
“In a minute,” Josh said as he scurried off to the bathroom. Once back at the table with a refilled mug, Josh took a deep breath and started filling Emily in on the surprising new developments. “Remember Hank Blinken, the big wheel at Wallingford Property and Casualty, who I worked with on that project where they wanted to figure out how to underwrite an important art collection that a bank was positioning as investment assets?”
Emily raised her eyebrows in surprise. “The guy who didn’t like your emphasis on the volatility of the top-end art market, and who objected to you including the cost of a full-time curator in the costs associated with that wonderful collection? I never thought you’d hear from him again, much less have such a long phone call. What does he want from you?”
“You know,” Josh objected, “not everyone has a problem with my having an opinion and some expertise. Some people appreciate it. I may have tangled a bit with Hank because I didn’t just take
orders. But I think he respected my reasoning behind my opinions. My integrity.”
“That’s nice,” Emily shook her head. “Maybe it’s a guy thing, but you two always seemed so competitive. Combative. So, it feels a bit strange that he’s just about the only person who has given you a call after you left New York City. What does he want?”
Josh winced. “I don’t think he called me because he likes me. We’re not besties. Never will be. He called me because I amexactly qualified to do a particular appraisal. He’s not doing me a favor. As much as I’d like it to be the case, I don’t think, ‘This is the start of a beautiful relationship, Louis.’ I solve a problem for him. Guess what? I’m getting this gig because we’re in Lakeside Falls, not in spite of that.”
“Wonders never cease,” Emily declared. “Tell me about this miracle.”
“We’re going to have to keep our enthusiasm on low,” Josh warned. “Someone died—not that my assignment will involvethat. Still, I’m sure you’ll advise me to be circumspect and respectful. I appreciate that in advance.”
“Even more wonders,” Emily said. “Enough prologue. What’s the deal? And why are you hesitating? How did you get the call because we’re in Michigan?”
Josh smiled at the role reversal. Normally, he would be the one pushing to have a story told more quickly and with less context. “I don’t know all of the details, yet. There’s more to it than I’ve been told, I’m sure. But from what Hank said, there was an incident, something over at Laklandia that included some vandalism. Hank wants me to get over there pronto, because the guy at the college who handles its insurance needs to see some quick action, maybe get some hand-holding.”
“Okay,” Emily erupted. “Now you’re going too far. ‘The unnecessary lie.’ No one is going to choose you to do hand-holding. Not your jam. They might ask me...”
“Emily,” Josh said, almost at a whisper, “I know that. And that’s not the only reason why you’re the more logical person for this assignment. The thing that Blinken seemed most concerned about is an old violin. Totally in your wheelhouse.”
“I can see why you were so absorbed in that call. And, Josh, let me guess why you’ve been stalling. This should be my assignment... but you want it.”
“Bingo. Part of me has been dying for a call from New York. Even though, technically, this call was from Connecticut. But it’s the same thing. Sure, you could do this project in your sleep, while it might stretch me a bit. But I want to stretch. I feel like I’m rusting.”
“I know,” Emily accepted. “I get it. I have the same feeling, sort of. But I don’t like the idea that the better person for the job doesn’t get the nod just because she’s female and some male wants it. Sucks for me.”
“Kinda thought you might feel that way,” Josh conceded. “What if we present ourselves as a team? That’s what we are, right?”
“Of course, we’re a team. Always. But frankly, I’m not sure I need the added closeness of being partnered with you in a second business, as well as married, and parents, and whatever we are to Caesar. Let’s make a deal. If I let you have this assignment solo for the sake of your male ego, what concession do I get from you and your male ego?”
“Sounds like you have something in mind.”
“Yeah. You’ve fought it, for whatever reason, but we need to be responsible. You take the lead on this assignment. I’ll stay hands-off unless you need me. But when it’s done, you take Caesar to the vet and get him neutered.”
Josh made a horrified face at Emily’s suggestion, but it was mock horror—mostly. He understood that Emily was right, and he had just been putting off the inevitable. Then, as he said “Deal,” his face broke into a smile that made him look like a ten-year-old who had just been given a whole chocolate cake. Then Josh’s face
went through yet another transformation. Involuntary, nothing mock about it, Josh wasn’t acting. He probably wasn’t aware that he was revealing so much about his inner turmoil.
Emily didn’t like what she saw. If Josh was going to take this project on solo, he needed to be one-hundred percent, full of the charm that made him special. He should be ecstatic, because this freelance assignment was exactly what the Flanagans needed to stay afloat. He wasn’t there. If he had been, he would have told a joke, probably a pun he made up on the spot. That’s how they kept things right and light between them.
Emily would probably never say it to Josh, but she understood that the best way to get him talking was for her to start talking. She started off using a solicitous, hyper-sincere, optimistic tone that she knew would agitate him without giving him anything to argue with. She didn’t want argument. She wanted him to open up and put his concerns on the table.
“This could be the turning point we’ve been needing, the magic moment when our fortunes stop travelling along the bottom edge of the blade of the hockey stick and start rocketing skyward along the handle.” Emily paused for a moment to give Josh the opportunity to say something, maybe just a pun on the word “puck.” But Josh stayed frozen, so she continued.
“We’ve been in a dark mood. And we both know how much today’s market hates ‘dark.’ Think of all the beautiful mahogany furniture that our parents and grandparents would have loved, that we can’t sell for love or money. But this feels like a ray of sunshine, lightening our mood—everything will get better.” As Emily spoke, she noticed Josh’s eyes becoming brighter and darting around a bit. Her strategy had worked. Josh had something to say. He might pop if he didn’t get to speak.
“It’s not that bright or that simple,” Josh broke in. “The violin was damaged by vandalism during a robbery. And someonedied. But they can’t give me details yet, pending notification of family and stuff like that. It’s great that Wallingford P and C wants me on the case, but they don’t want all of me. You
mentioned the art-collection-as-assets job I did. Charting the market volatility wasn’t part of the scope, but I did it because it was the right way to do things. That’s me. Blinken made it clear that they want me to stay in my lane and give a quick evaluation of the violin and stay away from everything else, including the death. That’s not me. I’m not even sure I can do that.”
Emily understood. Josh hated being fenced in. He hated being told to put blinders on. Trying to keep Josh’s mind on task, she said, “With any luck, the death will prove to be straightforward with a simple, direct explanation.”
“Let’s hope so,” he said. “I’m not going to go hunting for trouble. I’d like this to be straightforward, easy money. But you know how it pushes my buttons when anyone pushes me to the perimeter. I’m quite capable of making myself an outsider without help.”
Emily decided to stay as positive as possible about Josh’s assignment. He needed a challenge. “The assignment sounds perfect for you. You can do it with your eyes closed and walk away with a healthy fee. No complications.”
“No strings attached?” Josh smirked. “That’s the state of the violin that was vandalized.” There was the thing she had been hoping for. A joke, even if it was a lame pun.
“Still,” Emily joined in, “this assignment should be sweet music to your ears. A change from the usual.”
“Something for me to fiddle with?” Josh topped. “Maybe. Somehow, I doubt this violin case is all that open and shut,” hesaid, as he mimed shutting a violin into its case. “The assignment is only to look into the injured instruments. But I’ll string it along for a while.”
Emily and Josh would never have had this conversation if anyone else had been listening. Most people would think they were heartless to be joking around so much when they had just heard about a death. But joking was one of the ways they dealt with bad situations. Wit was part of who they were as a couple,
and as individuals. Approaching even the darkest of moments with a little humor helped keep them sane and able to function.
“Josh,” Emily implored more seriously, “You’re going to do what you’re going to do. But please, please remember that an accident might just be an accident. This could be pretty simple. You can just ask Isaiah to fill you in. He’ll be happy to help.”
“Of course,” Josh snapped. “That’s where I’ll start. I hope that’s the nature of things. I’m not looking for trouble, but if my instincts tell me something’s wrong... I have a pretty good track record.”
“Yes, Josh, you do,” Emily soothed. “It’s just that people who have recently lost a loved one, even if it's a faculty memberrather than a family member, aren’t always eager to answer a lot of questions and entertain a lot of theories.”
“I know that,” Joshua countered. “But, ultimately, the truth matters. Buried secrets come back later to haunt us. That’s the basis of half of the horror movies ever made. I’m with you. I hope this is easy money. I’d like nothing more than closure for this claim and everyone involved. As long as there’s nothing that will cause the wounds to be reopened later on, because that’s the worst.”
Emily nodded silently, knowing that the conversation didn’t have anywhere positive to go. Josh knew his faults. He knew he was nosy, a bit of a know-it-all, and occasionally a bit self- righteous. And she knew that it wouldn’t help if she brought any of that up. He would feel wounded and would protect himself by raising the shield of “emmis,” the Yiddish word for “the truth.” His compulsion to find the truth, regardless of the social consequences, frustrated her, but was also a big part of why she loved him.
The silence continued as Emily tried to find an acceptably clever wordplay on “violin” and “violence.”
“So,” Josh said, breaking the silence, “is your and Audrey’s version of ‘Blackbird’ ready to fly?”
“As good as it’s going to get, although Caesar has different ideas about that,” she said of the Rottweiler, who had found a bed for his head in her lap, patting him fondly on the head.
“I love that song,” Josh smiled. “But I sure hope none of the seniors ask me what the lyrics are all about. I have no idea.”
“You don’t have to have an answer for everything,” Emily sighed. “Just smile and applaud. The seniors mainly want to see us have fun. That’s fun for them, too. They’re good at living with a little mystery.”