October 31st, 1974.  11:35 AM       

 

On a busy day our receptionist, Susan Oxman, would probably field no more than two-dozen calls, and each would result in an immediate transfer or a message scribbled down quickly.  She has a lot of free time on her hands.

            The odd thing about Susan is she has nothing to fill her down time.  She doesn’t read or knit, she just sits there with her hands folded neatly and resting on the desk waiting for the phone to ring.  On several occasions I had pointed out that perhaps beading would be a nice way to idle away the hours.  She had all the tools, clasps, wire, and string a person could hope for just a few feet away, and what bead enthusiast wouldn’t envy the selection of baubles available to her?

            She didn’t share my zeal for the idea.

            Susan looked like a bulldog. The corners of her mouth pointed to the ground pulling her full cheeks down with them, she had a prominent under-bite, and each morning she rubber-banded her short hair into two miniature pigtails.  But when the telephone rang a strange transformation took place: her smile pulled those jowls up to form pink, cherubic cheeks, all sense of boredom evaporated from her eyes, her posture straightened, and her voice became downright pleasant and perky.  It was as if she had a cute doppelganger that took over whenever duty called.

            I had come into the office to pick up whatever new samples I would be taking with me and say goodbye to the other salespeople.  I was expecting they would be at the office for the same reason.  Earlier in the day I had spent almost an hour staring at my suitcase wondering if getting back to work was the best thing to do.  The letter from Sarah had my head spinning; was she planning on contacting me?  If so, when? Would I be wasting my time if I were to spend a few more days in Seattle waiting for her?  Would those days turn into weeks?  How far behind would I fall, and would it be all for naught?

            In my left pocket I had my flight itinerary, and when I walked up to Susan’s desk my plan was to have her call the airline and delay my departure for two days.  But instead I found myself reaching into my right pocket and pulling out the letter from Sarah.

            “Susan, do you remember this letter coming in?”  I said, handing the envelope to her.

            “Mm hmm,” she replied dryly, after studying it for about 15 seconds.

            “Did the handwriting or stationary look familiar to you?  Could there have been other letters like this delivered that maybe fell through the cracks?”

            “No,” she said.  “I’d remember.  If not the handwriting, then definitely the perfume.”  With these last words the spiritual transformation of Susan took place, and a devilish spark glinted in her eye.  “Does Mr. Louviere have a lady that’s sweet on him?” she teased.

            “Mr. Louviere doesn’t know. That’s the problem.”  I winked at her, and headed for the conference room.

 

October 31st, 1974.  11:40 AM       

           

Three of the six other salespeople were already there, arranging their wares in display cases and pointing out beads to the others that they thought would be particularly hot sellers.  The usual hellos and greetings awaited me as I set my display case on the table and prepared to join my coworkers in adding the new beads into my already crowded collection.

            “Thanks for the party last night,” Eliza said.  “I had a great time.”

            “Oh, yes, me too,” Grace quipped.  “The dancing, and all that excitement with that witch woman.”

            “Speaking of the witch, has anybody seen Donald today?  I have some questions I’d like to ask him about his dancing partner.”

            The burly ex-Marine, Oliver Hampton, chuckled.  “Yeah, so do I.”  He made the remark rather off the cuff, setting a rose quartz bead in one compartment before standing back, squinting his eyes and studying his placement, then changing his mind.  His remark reminded me that he, too, had had a rather strange reaction when Toby Bartman told his story of the mysterious blond with the curly hair in the meeting yesterday.

            “Do you have a couple minutes, Oliver?” I asked him.

            “Sure boss.  Anything wrong?”

            “No, I’d just like to talk to you in my office if you can spare them.”

            Oliver poked at a few beads in his display case before following me down the hall.

 

October 31st, 1974.  11:45 AM       

 

I had no use for an office, but since the company was mine I had one.  There was no phone, chairs, or even a desk, but Oliver and I were able to make ourselves relatively comfortable sitting on the stacked boxes of inventory that were temporarily filling the space, and had been during my entire time with the company.

            “Oliver, I was in Ohio, I think, when I ran into that woman, Celia Andrews.”

            “No kidding,” he looked genuinely surprised.  “You sure it’s the same woman? I mean, Toby was in Spearfish, you were in Ohio, and I was just outside of Tampa when I saw her.  What are the odds it could be the same woman?  Too much of a coincidence, I say.”

            “It wasn’t a coincidence,” I was surprised by how sure of myself I sounded now that I had said it out loud.  “I just need to know what happened.”

            “Okay, well let me think.”  Oliver leaned back, put his hand on his face, and slid it downward.  When his fingers and thumb met at his chin he inhaled and began his story.

            “It was a Sunday, I’m sure of that.  Don’t exactly know which Sunday, probably about two months ago, I’d say. Two, two and a half at the most.  I know it was Sunday ‘cause I had been in church.  I don’t remember the name of the church, but it was right next to a park.  But that’s why I picked that church, I noticed when I had driven into town that it was right next to a park, though I don’t remember the name of the park, either.

            “Anyway, after church I went to my car and got the lunch I had packed.  Ham sandwich and a thermos of coffee.  I don’t know why, but after church I like to have a ham sandwich and coffee.  Ain’t that strange?  Only after church do I want a ham sandwich and coffee.  I’d never really thought about that before.”

            Oliver’s eyes drifted, as if his Sunday culinary habits were the real mystery here.  I had to bring him back on track.

            “So the girl,” I said.

            “Oh, right, the girl.  Well, they had these picnic benches all around the park so I sat down and unwrapped my sandwich, and that’s when I noticed her.  Well, noticed her for the second time, I had also seen her in church.  She stood out ‘cause she was alone, like me, but also she didn’t seem to be following along too well with what was going on. She would flounder when we would all sing, as if she didn’t know the words.  That’s what I really found strange, ‘cause it was the basic, standard stuff.

            “So, anyway, she’s kind of pacing around and looking sort of distressed so I yelled to her and asked if she was okay.  She walked over, asked if she could sit, I told her I didn’t mind at all, and offered her half of my ham sandwich.  She politely refused.  I told her it was good, and that maybe getting something in her belly would make her feel better, but she said she was too upset to eat ‘cause it was her niece’s birthday and she had totally forgotten to get the girl a present.”

            “It appears our Miss Andrews has a penchant for forgetting niece’s birthdays,” I said, and let Oliver continue.

            “You don’t say.  Well, anyway,” he continued. “An idea hit me right out of the blue, how about a pretty piece of jewelry?  She said she was due at the party, and didn’t know of any places open on Sunday.  The Lord does work in wondrous ways, I remember telling her.  And when I mentioned I was a bead salesman, with all the makings for a beautiful gift in my car, she smiled a smile that would melt anyone’s heart.”

            I thought I could take over the story from here, so I took a go at it.  “Then you get your case, she looks around.  Now, this is the important part, Oliver, I need you to remember as best you can: did she find anything she liked?”

            “Oh, yeah, she sure did,” he said.  “She was so happy she even changed her mind about that sandwich, and took half.”

            “Do you remember what she bought?”

            “How could I forget? It was the weird bead.  Not weird like the one Toby said he had, this was different, but still weird.  And what else was odd was that’s all she wanted, just the one bead.  I tried to tell her she’d need more than a single bead to make a piece of jewelry, but she had her mind set on just that one bead.”

            “What did it look like?”

            “It was red, kind of cube shaped, but not perfectly square.  And it had these veins all through it.  Not like veins in marble, they were raised and smooth, sort of a blue tint.”

            “Sounds pretty enough,” I offered.

            “No, not really.  The veins on this bead had always reminded me of the veins on the back of an old lady’s hand.  And the whole thing, with the glossy red color, well, to be honest, it looked like something a vet might pull out of a sick cat.  It wasn’t surprising that bead had been in my case since I started working here, and no one ever came close to thinking about buying it.”

            I stood and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Thanks, Oliver,” I told him.  “That’s all I needed to know.”

            “I didn’t do something wrong, did I Sammy?”  He said as we both walked out of my office.

            “Not at all,” I reassured him.  “I just wish Donald would get here so I could have the same chat with him.”

            When we entered the conference room Grace and Eliza shared a look and a grin, as if whatever their conversation had been about, it had stopped specifically because of our being there.  I ignored it, at first.

            “So, more man talk about your mysterious witch woman?” Eliza chided.

            “As a matter of fact, yes,” I said back.  “And it doesn’t have to be limited to man talk.  If either of you ladies have any interesting tales of odd women wanting to buy even odder beads, I’d be happy to hear them.”

            Grace laughed.  “Oh, I’m afraid, Mr. Louviere, that we’ve got something better than that.  It just so happens that Eliza and I have both had puzzling encounters of our own with a mystery man.”

            “Excuse me?”  I wasn’t expecting this, and I certainly wasn’t ready for it.

            “Now, now, we’re not sure.”  Eliza stepped in, using her political background to quell the confusion she saw in my expression.  “Not a hundred percent sure that it’s the same man.  It’s just that our descriptions of him are similar.  It could be, and probably was, two different men.”

            I went to the water cooler and quickly downed a few ounces of the-much-too-cold liquid while wishing it was bourbon.  If I was going crazy, I had to get a hold of myself.  If I wasn’t, well, I still had to get a hold of myself.

            “Just let me know one thing,” I said to the ladies as I rearranged some beads in my case.  “Please, for the sake of my sanity, tell me that he wasn’t looking for a last minute birthday gift for his niece.”

            “He wasn’t looking for a gift for his niece,” Eliza said in a smooth voice, noticeably trying to calm my nerves. But then, at the exact same instant, she and Grace said the same words:  “It was for his mother.”

            The shocked looks bounced around the four of us like a pinball being shot from bumper to bumper.  Even Eliza and Grace looked at each other, stunned, as this last fact was something they hadn’t yet shared with each other.  Grace then, of course, dropped her coffee cup.

            “What’s going on?” Eliza asked me, in a tone more grave than wanted to hear at the moment.

            I wanted to just throw up my arms and leave the room, tell them all that if any weird people approach them in weird ways with weird excuses for buying a weird bead from them, then fine. Sell the bead, or give them the bead, and forget about it.  It was all too strange, and though I wanted to ask Eliza and Grace what their beads looked like and if Mr. Mystery had left with what he wanted, or left disappointed, I also wanted to not think about it.

            Then the phone rang and Eliza answered.  “Yeah, he’s right here. Thanks Susan.” Then to me:  “Sam, you have a call, line seven.”

            We only had two phone lines at the company, but Hubie Three had the idea to call them six and seven rather than one and two.  His reasoning was that if someone were visiting the office, they would be more impressed with the operation if they thought we had more phone lines than we did.  It never occurred to Hubie that any visitor could easily see that each phone only had two clear cubes of plastic at its base.

            “Oh, and it’s a girl,” Eliza said in a mocking voice as she handed the receiver t me.  “I wonder if it’s the blond.”

            I stopped dead in my tracks.  My heart raced, and a tingling chill went up my spine, spread out over my shoulders, and grabbed tightly onto the back of my head.  Who could it be besides Sarah?  No one I could think of.  I knew I couldn’t talk in front of the others, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to speak even if I did..

            “I’ll take it in Hubie’s office,” I told Eliza.

 

October 31st, 1974.  11:55 AM       

 

When I walked into Hubie Three’s office, he was bent over a ledger book, as he always was, and as he looked up at me I sensed disappointment in his eyes, as I always did.

            “I need to use your phone, Hubie,” I told him.

            “Sure, go ahead.”  He pointed towards the phone with the eraser end of his pencil, not missing a beat in his work.

            “And I need some privacy,” I added.

            He started to say something, but decided against it.  He closed the ledger, held it tight to his chest, and when he bumped into me on his way out I knew it wasn’t by accident, but I didn’t really care.

            When I heard the door close behind him I took a deep breath, picked up the receiver, and pushed the button for line two/seven.

            “Samuel Louviere speaking,” I said, trying not to betray to her that I was hoping she would be calling me.

            “Sam?”  The voice was familiar, but it wasn’t Sarah.  “Sage here, how you doing?”

            Caught off guard, I barely managed to choke out a, “fine.”

            “Listen, sorry to ask for you specifically, I just took a stab, hoping you’d be there.  I need to buy some beads, lots of beads, actually.”

            There was something in her voice that didn’t sound quite like the usual happy go lucky Sage.  “Are you okay?” I asked.

            “Yeah, I’m fine,” she answered.  “But my store, well, it was broken into.  They stole all my jewelry.”

            Happy Halloween, I thought to myself. 

 

 

 ..................to be continued

 

© 2006 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd