What Fresh Hell?
What the hell had his son gotten him into? He had not wanted to come here.
He had not wanted to go anywhere.
He had only agreed when his son and his doctor had insisted, practically threatening him with involuntary commitment if he didn't agree.
. . .
So he'd had a little breakdown.
. . . Not like it was a big breakdown.
Sure, he'd broken a couple of dishes, some china, some glassware. What was the big deal?
. . .And
He'd taken out his Glock and had done some target practice on the statuary in the gardens.
Blowing the heads off all the female figures.
What was the problem?
After all, it was his stuff.
. . .Oh, and he'd tested positive for amphetamines.
And his oxycodone was at a near lethal level at .5.
And his alcohol content was .28.
What was their problem?
Not like he had a problem.
He could quit anytime.
He'd just had enough of everybody else's crap
And kinda lost it.
Things like this happened.
. . .Right?
Belle was ok with the rumors.
They'd all heard the rumors before. The mysterious owner of their building (whom they had long ago started calling 'The Great and Powerful Oz' or GaPOz for short) was going show up unannounced, evict them all, then turn the building into luxury apartments with a forty dollar plus entree restaurant on the ground floor where their shops all were.
They'd been hearing these rumors for years. And nothing ever came of it.
But something was happening now.
For real and for true, something was happening.
Someone had moved in Sunday evening. Moved into the penthouse apartment. There had been people going up and down, up and down, up and down, the stairs (all three flights to the fourth floor) all afternoon into the early evening.
They all knew someone had moved in "up there."
She shrugged. No sense borrowing trouble. She and the others had always paid their rent on time. They never complained about the heating or the cooling or the plumbing or the elevator or anything else; they had just accepted the vagaries of the building as part of its idiosyncratic charm. They were all good tenants.
She doubted it would be "The Landlord," GaPOz. That character was some megagazillionaire and this building was just a tiny fraction of what he owned. He probably didn't even know he owned it, he had so many buildings and enterprises and businesses.
But this could be one of his flunkies. A high priced flunky who was there to check out the earning potential of the building.
Then again, it could just be someone who could afford the rent for the downtown penthouse suite which covered the entire top floor of the building where she lived and worked. Another tenant just like the other tenants. . . except with a lot more money.
A lot more money.
She figured they would meet the new tenant, landlord, flunky or whatever, soon enough.
Gold had gotten up at five. He always got up at five. He exercised on his stationary bike (it was the only form of exercise his knee could tolerate), shaved and showered. He noticed in the morning light that there was a door that opened onto a roof area. Looked like there was a seating area and a number of lush plants growing under a canopy. There was probably a nice view from there. He would be able to stand out there and smoke a cigarette. They hadn't banned smoking in your own home . . . yet.
He detected it then. Someone was moving outside on the roof area.
He looked closely. It was a petite figure.
He saw the rest of what was going on out there on the roof then.
Oh crap, someone in the building had been using his roof area for a garden. The figure was out there tending the garden. Watering the plants. Looked like they might be picking a few ripe somethings or anothers. The figure turned and he could tell it was a female. She looked young. She worked quickly and efficiently and was gone over the side of the building before she noticed he was watching her. Probably accessing the roof area from the fire escape.
That would have to stop.
He shrugged and went in to make himself coffee and check the financial updates.
Yes, he knew he wasn't supposed to be checking the financial updates, but this had been his life for more than, what now? More than thirty years. He couldn't just go cold turkey on this as well as everything else they had taken away from him. No alcohol, no amphetamines. Hell, Archie had wanted him to give up smoking (like that was going to happen). He knew someone would be dropping by to check on him at random times and if there were any problems, whoosh, off he'd go to an institution, Betty Ford Hospital, or some such rehab place. This was his last fucking chance.
He set the coffee machine up and hit the start button. Nothing happened.
He tried it again.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Damn, damn, damn.
Try the plug in another receptacle.
This new machine was a dud.
So now, he was well and truly desperate.
He pulled out a cigarette to help with the tremors.
Where the hell would he be able to get a cup of coffee in downtown Asheville, North Carolina at 6:30 in the morning?
Belle was up early. . .as usual. She had been up and worked as quickly and quietly as she could in the roof garden, hoping she wouldn't disturb the new tenant that didn't sound like the best way to meet him. . . or her.
Then she was in her shop early. . . as usual. She was busy, getting things tidied up before any customers, for that matter before any of her help, arrived. . . as usual
She couldn't help but notice the man.
Very well dressed, but looking so forlorn.
Like a sweet, little puppy. Big brown eyes. Like a really, really cute puppy. Standing outside her window. Looking in. He looked so lost.
She went out to him, leaving her door opened, as she did when the store was opened for business. "Hello sir. You look a little bewildered. Can I help you? Get you a cup of coffee, tea?
"Coffee?" he replied. Of all the words she had said, that was the one he had heard.
"Absolutely, absolutely. Come on it," she smiled and invited him in.
He followed this vision who promised coffee into her lair. He looked around. This business was on the ground floor of his building. What was it? Belle's Books and Candles - Ephemera and Supplies for the Practitioner.
Oh good god, give me a break.
He looked around. He could see this was a book store that had dedicated a few corners to other stuff. The coffee shop was in one of the corners.
He looked it over with the practiced eye of a businessman. Well designed for optimum use of space. Minimum menu. Easy for staff to manage. Eclectic décor, looked like a mix of cast-off old-fashioned wooden dining room chairs and small tables. Added to the relaxed ambiance.
And in the bookstore proper there were heavy bookshelves to give it that library atmosphere. Lotsa twists and turns (for coziness and maximization of space), but ceiling reflectors to discourage (or catch) shoplifters. The register was also set near the door to reduce shoplifting. Not too bad for a place that looked like it was run by a bunch of ditzies.
Belle watched him closely while she verbally reviewed the menu for him. He was silent but very watchful, looking over her store – and looking her over, but trying not to look like he was looking her over.
The pretty brunette with extraordinary blue eyes who had enticed him into her store with a promise of coffee was talking to him.
". . . and lattes and espressos and caramel macchiatos. But let me guess. I'm actually good at guessing what kind of coffee people will like. Humm, let's see," she was still talking.
Now he realized that she was looking at him, really looking at him. "Nice suit, really nice," he heard her say. "Nice shoes." How much longer, oh lord, how much longer? "OK, my guess is plain black coffee," she was smiling at him. "No sugar. No milk."
His head hurt.
But he was slightly impressed.
"That's correct," he answered. Now, just get me the damn coffee, please.
"Would you permit me to introduce you to something new that you may like?" she asked him. "I'll just charge you for a regular cup and if you don't like it, no problem, I'll get your regular coffee for you."
Whatever it takes to get me coffee, already, dearie. He nodded.
She worked behind the counter for a few moments, selecting, grinding, brewing. She was brewing regular coffee and making espresso. She planned to give him one of her best.
Now she was talking again.
"This is called an 'extreme long shot.' It's a variation of the Café Americaine. Instead of adding hot water to espresso, I'm adding espresso to brewed coffee and, in your case, I'm giving you a double shot of espresso."
She handed it off to him, "You look like you could use it."
He sniffed it and took a sip. It was hot, a bit too hot to drink.
"My pastries haven't come in yet, so I'm sorry I can't offer you anything to eat. Miss Emma usually gets by about seven, right before I open up officially."
Good lord, she was still talking.
She began to brew herself a cup of coffee.
He took a sip and gave the young woman a hard look.
She was concerned. He looked distressed. "Is it all right?" She looked up from the work of fixing herself her own coffee. "Is it too strong? I can fix you a regular cup, if you like."
"Young woman, this is the best tasting cup of coffee, I've ever had. It's like coffee flavored coffee."
She blushed, as if he had given her a personal compliment. Wow, that was nice . . . and unexpected.
"You called it an 'extreme long shot'?" he asked. He wanted to remember that.
For the rest of his life.
"That's right." He watched as she poured an equal amount of warmed skim milk into her own cup of coffee and scrunched her nose at him.
"You're open at seven every morning?" he asked.
"Sometimes a bit earlier. Coffee I can get you, but the pastries don't come by quite that early. They get here as early as they can from the co-op."
He couldn't help himself. "Do you serve anything else besides coffee and pastries?"
She shook her head, "Not really. Sometimes cookies. My main business is the bookstore and, well, there are a few side things. We started serving coffee a couple of years ago and it has gone really well. People seem to expect to be able to get coffee in a bookstore. If you want a more nutritious breakfast, I would suggest either the Sunny Point Café or the Over Easy Café. I can point you in the direction of either one of those. Now," she surprised him by coming over and sitting down next to him. "I'm Belle, by the way. Are you visiting? here on business? or are you a new resident?"
He found himself looking into her deep blue eyes. She actually seemed genuinely interested.
"I'm here on vacation," he answered. Well that was more or less the truth.
"You can take a vacation, you can be committed, or you can die," was what Dr. Hopper had told him.
"Vacation it is," he'd decided.
His son had clinched it. "Dad, I've lost my mother. I don't want to lose you too," he'd told him. He'd gone on to assure his father, "Rumplestiltskin Enterprises will keep going without your moment-to-moment involvement. I promise I'll call you once a week and any time there's a problem. But you need to walk away from the power seat, Dad. Go somewhere where they're not asking you to make your deals, wield your magic every day."
Well, what else could he do? Bae had suggested that he pick a town and find a building he owned in it and just go there for six weeks. And relax. So he'd thrown a dart at the map and hit this place. Of course he owned a building in the town. He owned a building in just about every town. At least one.
So he'd sent people ahead to help with the move-in phase and here he was.
It was late June and now he was stuck in the mountains of North Carolina.
For forty-two days.
"Vacation, delightful. First time here?" she asked.
Damn, she was chatty.
"Yes," he answered.
"How long will you be here?"
"About six weeks," he answered.
"So, you'll be here for Bele Chere, then. Now are you here with your wife?" she was continuing to invade his privacy.
Was there no end to her inquisitiveness?
"I'm alone," he replied.
"Really?" she seemed to be a little distressed. "Where are you staying?"
Was she going to offer additional services as a tour guide? A caterer? A whore?
This time he hesitated. He was her landlord, after all. He didn't know if he was quite ready to blow his cover just yet.
"I have a nice place," he told her.
"Oh, I just wondered if you might be my landlord. Or if you were acquainted with him. Someone moved in upstairs yesterday."
If he hadn't had years of experience in the financial world dealing with corporate attorneys, real estate moguls, business magnates and other land sharks, he might have flinched.
Good guess, girl.
Thankfully, he was spared additional conversation with The Little Ray of Sunshine when a pretty blonde carrying a large box breezed in.
"Gotcha stuff," the blonde announced and his Little Bubble of Energy gave him a last smile and rose to take the box. Money exchanged hands and the box was opened and its contents distributed behind a glass display case.
"These all look amazing, like always," Now, the Little Chirping Chipmunk was talking with the blonde delivery woman.
"We're still on for Wednesday?" the blonde asked.
"Girls Night In, like always," he heard her answer.
The blonde waved and went on her way, apparently making a series of early morning deliveries. He began to surreptitiously watch the petite brunette bookstore owner. She was dressed in a long flowing skirt which she had knotted to take up some of the length. On top, she wore just a plain tank top and a silver necklace. Long, dangly earrings. Minimum of make-up - he guessed, although he thought that she still looked red-carpet worthy. He couldn't help but notice she had delicate feet with painted toenails encased in simple sandals. There was a soft curve to her hip and a gentle swell to her breasts. Her skin looked like porcelain. She had wrapped her hair around and it was pinned on top of her head. Oh lord? did she have feathers in her hair? He felt an unfamiliar tightening in his lower extremities while he looked at her.
Good grief man. Get a grip on yourself. She's probably younger than Bae. And a pretty thing like this would certainly have a husband or boyfriend or somebody keeping her. At any rate she wouldn't possibly be interested in a dried up stump like yourself . . .well, not unless she found out about his money.
Belle noticed he was still looking at her, and still trying not to look at her. Nice looking man. Very well dressed. Looked like deep pockets. Gorgeous brown eyes. Carried a cane. She had noticed a bit of a limp. Probably her father's age. Attractive, though. Very attractive. Extraordinary hands, long supple fingers. And an accent, something from the British Isles, either Irish or Scottish; she couldn't tell the difference. Emanated strength. Power. A dark power, but that was just her imagination running away with her.
In came a tall, young woman, dressed in hot pants and a tank top. Her long dark hair was streaked with unnatural colors and her long nails were painted with a variety of brilliant colors. "Morning, Belle," the young woman called out and went behind the coffee counter. She wrapped a brilliantly colored apron around herself. It looked to him like there were little dogs and small bones set on a plaid background as part of the apron pattern. It was amazingly hideous.
He was surprised when Belle popped a scone down in front of him. "Cinnamon," she said as way of explanation. He had looked hungry to her. She scrunched up her nose at him again and went off, dusting and rearranging things around the shop. Getting ready to open.
The scone was good, still warm like it had come from the oven. He sat quietly drinking his amazing coffee and watching the store owner flit about. When customers started to drift by, he decided it was time to go. He waited until she was in the back of the shop and, more or less, sneaked out, wanting to avoid any additional conversation.
He left a hundred on the table.
Ruby found it.
"Belle!" she had cried out.
Belle had quickly come over, halfway expecting to hear that he'd stiffed them when she saw Ruby holding up Benjamin Franklin.
Well, well. This was unexpected.
She wondered if she'd ever see him again.
He walked around the remainder of the day. It was not what he'd expected. The damn city was built in the mountains and the streets went up and down steep inclines. It wasn't easy going for a man with a bad knee. He often had to stop and rest.
Not only were the streets a pain to navigate on foot but it was hot.
When he was able to find a place in the shade to sit, he found that he was actually a bit blown away by the town. Very different from most of the places he frequented. A lot of old buildings with, well, he guessed he'd call them quaint shops. Not a fan of quaint shops. The women were often dressed much like the little bookshop owner; it looked like it was some kind of Asheville uniform. There were a lot of art stores, and odd clothing stores and many little restaurants tucked into nooks and crannies. And a fair share of bars. He managed to avoid the bars and find lunch at a place called Limones (he got the tenderloin), then continued exploring the town.
By early evening, both legs were hurting him pretty fiercely. His knee was on fire, and he was leaning heavily against his cane. He'd almost gone through a pack of cigarettes and popped about six of his Tramadol (Archie had jerked him off the Oxycodone after The Incident). He had managed, with some effort, to stumble up the three flights of stairs to his apartment. The building had an elevator, but it had never worked during his ownership. None of the tenants had ever complained.
He'd make a call.
He wanted it repaired asap.
He looked in his fridge, his freezer and his cupboard. They had been well stocked. Canned soups, Lean Cuisines, sundry other bachelor foods. He opened a can of soup, found some crackers, fixed a cup of tea and sat in the quiet dark to eat his supper. There was a knock at the door.
He wasn't expecting anyone.
They knocked again.
Go away, damn you.
They weren't going away.
When he got up, he realized that his knee had tightened up and was determined to give him grief. He grabbed his cane and limped over to the door and cautiously opened it, leaving the chain on it.
It was Little Miss Sunshine.
Belle was surprised to see him. He looked tired, worn. "Well hello. So it was you who moved up here in our building. I'm just bringing you a Welcome to the Building Basket" and she held up a covered basket. Was he going to let her in? She gave him a big smile.
He considered. He so wanted to be rude and send her off. He didn't want any welcoming baskets. He didn't want any company. He didn't want to open the door.
But she was his coffee supplier.
And it was really good coffee.
He opened the door.
She breezed on in. "I'm sure you've noticed the garden we started on your patio. We can get up here using the fire escape. We wanted some fresh produce and no one had been here in the apartment for years, so we went ahead and planted some tomatoes and peppers and a couple of herbs. I hope you don't mind. I'm going to go ahead and water the plants right now. I also come early in the morning but I'll continue to use the fire escape so I won't disturb you. Of course, you're welcome to take what you need."
She'd set the basket on his kitchen table. She looked then and saw his soup bowl, the crackers and his cup of tea. She seemed a little embarrassed.
"I've interrupted your supper, haven't I? I'm so sorry. I have the worst timing."
She looked more closely at his supper and pulled a face. "You know there is this amazing gastropub in this building. Why don't I have them send up their special? I think today it's black eyed pea cakes topped with tofu steak and their own Hollandaise Sauce. Delish."
"Tofu steak?" he questioned.
"They're vegan," she explained. "Really awesome food. I promise you, even if you are a meat eater."
"Yuck, I mean yum," he said, unconvincingly.
"More yum than canned soup and crackers," she admonished him. She hesitated, clearing her throat, "Maybe I can treat you out of that hundred dollar bill you left this morning."
He flicked his eyes to hers. She had tilted her face and was giving him the slightest smile, like a mother might give a child who had behaved a little rambunctiously, but was still loved unconditionally.
"You're on vacation. Try something new," she talked softly, persuasively.
What the hell. Why not let her get him the quasi-food, leave and he could go back to his soup? No feelings hurt. Everything copasetic. Good lord, she wouldn't want to join him for supper! Would she? That would be awful.
"Listen, I can order it for you and have it brought up," she said.
She was still talking.
"I'll leave you in peace, if you promise me you'll try it. If you don't like it you can go back to your lack-luster tasteless canned soup with all of its BPH's and your high-sodium, high-fat crackers."
Belle heard herself and cringed. Whatever was she thinking? Talking to him like he was some old friend. Or some young friend. This man was old enough to be her father. He could be their landlord. He, at least, almost certainly had some connection with the GaPOz. He could probably arrange to have them all kicked them all out of their homes, their shops. And here she was, trying to push him around.
"Promise, you'll leave?" This is what he wanted.
"Yes, if you'll try it," she cajoled him. She wondered if she was flirting with him.
"Would you stay if I said I wouldn't try it?" What the hell? Why did he ask that? Was he flirting with her? Good lord, what must he be thinking? She was half his age.
Belle laughed. "If you want company, I'll be happy to bring two dinners up here, but only if that's what you want." She wouldn't mind having supper with him. Those brown eyes in the half-light were dark and mysterious. His accent was warming.
He hesitated. He was not going there. He needed peace and quiet. That's why he was here. He didn't need company from a young woman half his age.
A flakey young woman half his age.
A gorgeous, flakey young woman half his age.
"I promise to try it if you'll leave me in peace," he finally managed to get out.
She was on her smart phone in a heartbeat. He was a little surprised she had a cell phone. Somehow he'd thought she'd be relying on a rotary dial phone with a mechanical ringer.
"Jeff, it's Belle. One special, upstairs, top floor. Make it your best. It's for the new tenant, in the penthouse," he heard her say. Then she glanced at him, "Uh uh. . . . . . . Uh hum. . . . . . . . Uh uh. . . . . . . . Hummmm, well, I'd say eight.. . . . All right, Jeff. Thanks." She clicked her phone off and smiled at him. "Ten minutes."
"Wonderful," he said without enthusiasm.
Belle went on out to water the plants. He followed her and surveyed the gardening effort. Tomatoes, peppers, maybe some eggplant. There were cucumbers, beans, and squash. Some other little green plants he assumed were herbs. A lot of stuff in a little space. He watched her go about the business of watering the plants. He stood in silence watching her for a while. She didn't chatter as she worked with the garden. He was surprised, as much as she talked that she could manage silence, too. It was a rare gift.
He finally broke it. "He was asking about me?"
"Oh yes," she was smiling again as she worked among the vegetables. "Wanted me to tell them if you have admitted to being the landlord, if you seemed to be a nice guy, if you'd shared any future plans for the building with me, and," she almost seemed to be blushing. She did manage to look him squarely in the eye. "And where you rated on a hotness scale."
"Eight out of a hundred?" he had to ask.
"Out of ten. I don't know you well enough to give you a nine or a ten." She suddenly seemed a bit shy. Why did she say eight? The man was a fourteen. "Listen, there's all kind of stuff in the basket for you, some fruit, some coupons, but," she looked at him a bit embarrassed again. The man was obviously rich. "I don't suppose you use coupons, do you?"
"I use coupons all the time," he reassured her. He never used coupons.
That was nice of him to say. "Well there're also some brochures on what to do, where to go, touristy things. And some food and some. . . other things. Just a welcome basket. They'll be bringing up your supper in just a moment. I'm going to leave you in peace."
She finished up in the garden and started out his front door.
He called after her, "Hey!"
He felt a little awkward. "I will be able to get another extreme long shot tomorrow morning, won't I? My coffee maker isn't working and I didn't get around to getting a new one today."
She gave him the biggest, sunniest smile yet. "Of course. But you have to promise me you'll just pay for the coffee and leave a reasonable tip. I thought Ruby was going to have a stroke this morning and I can't afford to lose her. She's the best barista in a twenty block area, which for this town, is saying something."
She opened the door at the same time a lanky young man was about to knock.
"Just leaving, Jeff," she stepped out and then began to make introductions. "Oh yeah," she turned back to him, "This is Jefferson, he runs the gastropub downstairs. We call him Jeff. And Jeff, this is the new tenant who may or may not be our landlord, who has not yet told me his name," Belle looked over at him expectantly.
He winced just slightly. "I'm kinda vacationing incognito, if you don't mind. Why don't you just call me, Mr. uhm. . .uhm. . " stuck for a nom de voyage.
Belle looked at him. "Mr. Cash?"
"Sure, that will do." And close enough to what most people called him to be slightly unnerving.
And she was gone.
Jeff was smiling at this point. "This stuff will kill you, sir."
He'd gotten 'sir-ed.'
And Jeff swept aside the soup and crackers. He continued on, "Now this is one of our best sellers. We started making it at New Year's, serving it along with greens, and I kept it on our special's menu because we have so many requests. I had to substitute another vegetable because of the time of year. Today, I'm bringing you some cornbread, a nice side salad and some savory sautéed cabbage. All organic, of course. I make the dressing for the salad myself." He set out two plates of food on the table, along with cutlery and a cloth napkin. He looked with approval at the original choice of beverage and stepped back from the table. "I think you'll like it, sir. Even if you're a meat eater, this is pretty good stuff."
And Jeff was gone.
He was alone.
He debated, should he try the stuff and then go back to his soup? Or should he just say he tried the stuff and go back to his soup? He had promised Miss Sunshine.
Reluctantly, he forked off a piece of the tofu (tofu steak, indeed - thank god he's had the real thing for lunch already) and got a piece of the black-eyed pea cake. He closed his eyes and funneled them into his mouth.
. . .
Well, not the worst he'd ever had. He was expecting drywall or cardboard, but it was better than both of those. He took another bite. Okay, it was actually edible. He tried the cabbage. That was decent, too.
He slowly ate the entire meal, except the salad. He couldn't handle the salad. Fresh, raw vegetables. No, thank you. He scraped the plates and put them into the dishwasher. He then took his tea, one last Tramadol and his pack of cigarettes and went to sit out on his balcony. There was a green, healthy smell coming from the garden; there was something just a little sweet and lemony perfuming the air that was growing there. It was still light. He opened the cigarette pack, took out the last one, lit it and slowly smoked and sipped his tea while watching the lights and listening to the sounds of the city. He sat until it became dark. He went back in and watched the evening news and went to bed.
One day down. Forty-one days to go.