An Undisclosed Vocation


Prologue

Tuesday, April 28th

 

He swiveled back to face her.
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
Charlotte was relieved. “Thank you! You won’t regret it.”
He shrugged, as if in doubt. “Yeah, well, we’ll see. Just be careful with what I’m about to tell you, or you’ll get us both killed.”

 

One

Monday-Tuesday, May 11th-12th

 

Charlotte Kleid Anthony decided it was time to say something. The circles under her eyes had darkened into bruises, and the crevices around her mouth were no longer laugh lines. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, staring at herself in the bathroom mirror at four in the morning. Unable to get back to sleep.

Larry and Wendy were at it again. All night. They’d gone down the rabbit-hole of win-at-all-costs, unable to walk away from furious conflict over absolutely nothing.

Charlotte knew this because the volume penetrated the deep walls and floors of her studio apartment above The Good Stuff gift shop. Their apartment was above hers, on the top floor. Sometimes their little girls would add their own wailing to the mix. Or just the one girl now. The older one had gone quiet.

Then everything was quiet. It was over. No need to bang on the door or call the cops.

She shivered in the damp spring chill and scooped up Shamus from where he was hiding in the bathtub. She crawled back into bed, holding the big tuxedo cat close. He began to purr softly, finally relaxing, and in turn Charlotte finally relaxed, herself.

Still, she said something, catching her landlord in the shop in the hour before it opened.

“What in the hell, Larry?”

He didn’t look much better than herself, and apologized with a sigh. “It’s the money. Never directly about the money, but you know what Wendy’s like. I try to not worry her with all this stuff, but it’s like she knows there’s something wrong, but she doesn’t know what she knows so she thinks it’s something else, like another woman, or that I’m secretly planning to divorce her.”

He finished prepping the cash register, pushing the drawer shut with his ample belly and giving her a rueful, gap-tooth smile. “Just watch. She’ll come down here and see us talking and she’ll pretend to be cool with it. Then there’ll be hell to pay again tonight. She’s dragging me down with her.”

“You know, Larry when she starts screaming, Shamus runs and hides in the bathtub.”

It was a low blow, and Charlotte almost wished she could take it back. Shamus had been The Good Stuff’s shop cat before she rescued him from Wendy’s vitriol a few months before.

Larry’s black mustache sagged around his pout and he looked up at her with sad, tired eyes. “The meds aren’t enough. I gotta find her something to do.”

“What about just telling her what’s going on? Involve her?”

His eyes widened in amazement. “Are you nuts? She’ll have us blacklisted when she gets done running her mouth to the wrong people at the wrong time!”

Which was probably true. “You’re not going to be able to hide it from her for much longer, Larry. There’s going to be blueprints, meetings, inconvenience, and noise. And expense. But it’s all part of owning commercial property downtown.”

Larry groaned, even as he nodded at the truth of what she said. “I wish to god I’d never bought this building, just kept renting it—and it could have been someone else’s problem.”

Charlotte wasn’t unsympathetic. Larry told her about his problem a few weeks before: the city was going to upgrade and widen the the street along the side of his building, which meant he had to tear down his loading dock and rebuild it in order to comply with the new setback requirements. It was a large and unexpected expense. He thought to mitigate it somewhat by hiring his cousin Jerry to do the work, but Jerry couldn’t get a license in Elm Grove—he had served jail time, and would have to wait five years before he could even apply for one.

“The sad part is that he got convicted for something he didn’t even know he did,” Larry explained. “It was the guy he worked for that stole the stuff. He told Jerry to take a truckload of brick and lumber to another job, so he did—and next thing he knows, he’s under arrest as an accessory and found guilty.”

Fights with Wendy aside, Larry was a good landlord, so Charlotte had done some digging around. The difficulty in securing qualified, licensed, and affordable contractors in Elm Grove was a well-known problem, not unrelated to the question: why did the same people or companies win the city contracts over and over again? Her research led to writing an investigative article, which made a nice change from the transcription project she had completed. It was due today, in fact. Time to get back to it.

There! The place marks for all the photos, their captions, and the credits, were done. The article just needed going over one more time before emailing it to Daily Town. It felt good to finish it, but strange that it wasn’t going to appear with her byline. Daily Town gave its writers the option to use their own names or not, in common with many other political blogs known for their exposes of corruption and cronyism.

On one hand, it was exciting to write “under cover.” She felt less censored, less sensitive about what people would think of her if she felt the need to express hard truths about the way things were done in Elm Grove. On the other hand, it was difficult to not be able to talk about her work, and to avoid revealing what she’d learned in confidence from Mayor George Liverpool himself.

Not even her fiance, Donovan O’Dair, knew exactly what she was working on, and she was uncertain how much longer she’d be able to get away without telling him. At the moment he was focused on getting the bookstore ready, but once it opened—and especially once she moved in with him—he was bound to get curious.

Cross that bridge when I come to it, I guess.

Charlotte stretched her back, shoulders, and neck. Shamus did the same, cat-style, rising from his basket next to her computer. Time to take a short break, get some fresh air, see how things were going at the bookstore.

She popped into The Coffee Grove first. Donovan was sitting at a table with Jimmy Frobisher, the coffee shop’s owner, Mayor Liverpool, and a forty-something man she didn’t recognize. Donovan looked up and invited her over with a quick tilt of his head. She waved, then as she turned to get into the line to order, she bumped into a Hemingway lookalike.

“Oh, excuse me,” gesturing for him to go ahead. “Didn’t see you there.”

“Not at all, miss,” said the man, with a light touch of his hand on her back. “I insist.”

He smiled as if the fact she towered over him didn’t bother him a bit. She quickly thanked him and moved up in line.
So who was the guy sitting with Donovan, Jimmy, and the mayor? The stranger tapped his index finger firmly on the table to make his point. His Asian eyes glimmered, yet he was in control. In the mix of voices, clatter and coffee grinding, she could only catch snatches of what they were saying.

“—sitting empty for years,” said the stranger. “—what good is it doing—”

The mayor, shaking his head, “—zoning, parking—”

“—gallery—no one lives that way—”

“—Historical district—state doesn’t move fast—cannot—”

The Hemingway lookalike spoke up again. “It’s your turn, miss.”

Charlotte quickly turned to look down at him. His eyebrow raised as he nodded toward the counter, where Kelsey the barista was standing with a hellooooo? look on her face and holding out a large Americano.

“Sorry. I spaced out. Not enough sleep.”

Hemingway chuckled. “The coffee will help.”

By the time she approached the table, it was clear there was an argument, and that the stranger was a foreigner. His accent was American, for the most part, but every so often his pronunciation or phrasing was British.

“I won’t upset the larger constituency for an individual homeowner or business owner,” said the mayor.

“You know why you should!” hissed the stranger. He strode past Charlotte to the refill line.

“Wow.” She took the chair Donovan pulled up for her.

The sunlight from the window behind Jimmy cast a halo around his head that contrasted with his mischievous expression.

“No strong feelings there.”

Mayor Liverpool shook his head and gestured toward the stranger. “That’s Lucas Nantakarn, the fellow who bought the old Blumenthal Mansion. Wants to turn it into an art gallery.”

“Oh! Well, a gallery isn’t a bad idea, is it?”

He acknowledged it. “Not a bad idea in of itself at all. This town could use one. But it’s the Historical District, and there’s all kinds of zoning and regulations and other hoops to jump through, not to mention neighboring homeowners who like things the way they are.”

Lucas came back with his refill, and appeared to have cooled off. He placed a conciliatory hand on the mayor’s shoulder and resumed his seat.

“George, I apologize for getting so hot, honest. I appreciate that pushing this through for a newcomer would put you in a bad position.” He extended his hand, and George shook it and murmured an acceptance of the apology.

Jimmy performed the introductions. Lucas rose and shook Charlotte’s hand with a slight bow—and without breaking eye contact. For a disconcerting second she felt as if he could see everything there was to know about her down to a molecular level. Then he looked away as he sat down again, and the sensation passed.

Did I just imagine that? Maybe I need this coffee more than I realize.

The usual pleasantries revealed that Lucas was an import/export businessman from Thailand. Charlotte noted the precise way he held his cup of tea, and the way he leaned back and crossed his legs. He was charming, but it was studied. After a few minutes, Lucas said he had to get to O’Hare Airport to pick up his wife, who was arriving from Bangkok. He was glad to have met everyone, and looked forward to seeing them all again soon. She watched his smooth progress past tables and chairs on his way out. Dance training? Martial Arts?

The others were talking about Lucas’ proposal.

The mayor shrugged and sighed. “It’s a nice idea, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to let some outsider throw his weight around just because he’s loaded. We don’t do things that way in Elm Grove.”

Charlotte smiled to herself. Of course things weren’t done that way in Elm Grove. The mayor was wary of losing his clout to carpetbaggers.

Jimmy shrugged. “He should have looked a little more carefully into what would be involved before he bought the place. But I don’t think it’s going to hurt him financially one way or the other.”

Donovan laughed, pushing up his glasses. “Spotted the watch, did you?”

Jimmy grinned. “And I heard he paid cash for that house.”

“What kind of art does his wife do?” asked Charlotte.

“Mixed media,” said the mayor. “Evidently she’s pretty well-established, but I’m not sure what that means these days.”

Normally, Charlotte would stay and talk, but she couldn’t afford to get sidetracked from her work. She told Donovan she would see him for dinner, then managed to put the whole scene out of her mind by the time she got back to her place.

Dinner turned out to be a couple of Jimmy’s substantial submarine sandwiches, and dessert was two hours of helping Donovan shelve several boxes’ worth of books in order to get ready for his soft opening later in the week. He stayed on to work into the wee hours. She was actually glad to be alone in her apartment in order to have a spa night and to zone out with no distractions or conversation, since at the moment Donovan was all bookstore, all the time. She was also desperately short on sleep.

When she came to, she was still lying on the sofa in her bathrobe, the new Geoff Bower thriller, The Buddha’s Spy, was still spread open across her chest (and still on the second chapter), and the TV was still going. It was ten minutes before five in the morning—sunny, damp, and chirpy with the racket of happy birds. If Larry and Wendy fought again, it didn’t wake her up.

Birds. It was the second Tuesday of the month. Mayor Liverpool would be having one of his well-known “early bird” meetings. Around ten people, invitation only. During her interviews with him, he suggested that she might like to attend one, just to see the extent to which his government was and was not a strictly inner-circle operation. If it seemed like the same people got the same contracts over and over, he said, she might see valid—and even ethical—reasons why.

She dressed quickly, energized by the prospect of the meeting. She hoped to at least find the approach for the next article in the series, but the best thing was to go in with an open mind. Sometimes assumptions were proved wrong—and sometimes something wrong was discovered that she would never have dreamed of. Worked both ways.

City Hall was a few blocks past the bookstore, so she set out right away, enjoying both the exercise and a pleasurable sense of mission. Traffic was picking up on Harvey Street; dog walkers and runners went by. Mayor Liverpool was approaching, a Ralph Lauren country squire, from brown corduroys to a tan leather peaked cap. She waved and saw that he was carrying a tall thermal coffee carafe.

“Good morning, Charlotte! You’re up and about early.”

“That I am.” She nodded to the carafe. “Coffee for the early bird meeting?”

“Yes, yes. My secretary refuses to come in before eight o’clock, so I get coffee from Jimmy.”

“I hope this isn’t too sudden, but since you invited me to one of the meetings, I was wondering if it was possible for me to attend this morning?”

The mayor hesitated. “I’d say yes in an instant, Charlotte, except one of the attendees has specifically requested no members of the media. How about we commit to your coming next month? Would that be alright?” He fumbled around in his tweed jacket and retrieved his smart phone. “I’m adding your name to next month’s list. Now it’s official.”

Charlotte smiled to cover her disappointment. Mission thwarted, for the moment. “That’s great! Thank you, and I look forward to it.”

He beamed satisfaction. “Your Donovan is opening the bookstore this week, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is. Working night and day to get things ready.”

The mayor was about to reply when his smile faded as he looked past her shoulder. She turned to see Lucas Nantakarn across the street, talking on a cell phone as he strode in the direction of City Hall.

A woman walking her dachshund crossed the street, waving and calling, “Mr. Mayor!”

Mayor Liverpool once again beamed at Charlotte, his public persona intact, and patted her arm. “Have a lovely day, Charlotte, and tell Donovan I’ll be by for a sneak peek later on.” He turned and greeted the dachshund lady.

Charlotte decided to go on to the bookstore.

Sibylline Books was diagonally across from The Coffee Grove, at the intersection of Harvey and Ramble. Like the coffee shop, its entrance was formed by slicing off the corner of the building so that that the door faced the intersection. Charlotte unlocked it and went in.

The bookstore was brand new, but Donovan succeeded in making it look like it had been there as long as the building itself. The walls were exposed brick, and there was a beautiful curved staircase, a remnant of the building’s original purpose as a high-end women’s clothing store. Best of all, the texture and smells of older books mixed in with the new provided a warm atmosphere that chain bookstores simply couldn’t achieve.

The main level was nearly ready. There was a large, long table in the center of the store, surrounded by a collection of second-hand wood office chairs. An old walnut sideboard near the checkout counter would eventually have three or four carafes of different coffees from Jimmy’s shop. At the moment it just had one coffeemaker, which was nearly full, and hot. Donovan must be up early, too.

“Mornin’ Charlotte.” He came down the stairs, carrying his coffee mug. He looked tired, but happy.

She went over for a kiss. He held her close for a moment longer.

“Thanks again for your help last night.”

“Did you get any sleep?” she asked.

He shrugged and poured her a cup of coffee. “Yeah, but not enough. I wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly remember something else I have to do, and then my mind won’t shut off and let me get back to sleep.”

“It’s excitement. It’s your first store.”

He smiled and nodded, pushing up his glasses.

They leaned side-by-side against the checkout counter by the shop window, watching Mayor Liverpool finishing his conversation with the dachshund lady and turning off Harvey Street onto Ramble. Charlotte was still a little bummed about not being able to attend the meeting that day.

“George said he’d be by later—”

A titanic blast shook her to the bone, stopped her breath.

She hit the floor, arms over head.

Donovan fell across her.

Then all was quiet. It took a long minute to realize that nothing had actually happened to them, or to the bookstore. Charlotte’s heart pounded; she felt Donovan’s hand trembling as he helped her up.

“You okay?” he asked. She nodded.

They looked out the window.

Dust billowed from the ground-floor windows of the coffee shop.

Oh my god— “Jimmy!” She started for the door, but Donovan grabbed her arm so hard it hurt.

“Charlotte, no! There might be another one.” He had his phone out, dialing 911, but she could hear the sirens already.

They stood in shock, watching as the dust slowly dissipated. The emergency vehicles arrived, the streets were blocked, and the area around the coffee shop cordoned off.

A window opened on the second floor, and she gasped. Jimmy!

“He’s okay!”

“Oh, thank god.” Donovan’s voice almost broke.

But the dust had also cleared enough to reveal the mass of debris strewn across Ramble street—glass, wood, brick, bits and shards of furniture, fabric—

—and on the street, in the middle of the intersection: a tan leather peaked cap.